By taking steps to protect yourself from the sun, you can also help keep your skin healthy and reduce signs of aging.
Who is at risk of skin cancer? According to Bob Harper, a dermatologist at Marietta Dermatology & The Skin Cancer Center, the answer is everyone. Everyone has skin and melanocytes that produce the protective skin-darkening pigment called melanin. Both suntans and postinflammatory pigmentation result from the overproduction of melanin.
But some people have an increased risk of skin cancer. They include fair-skinned individuals, those who have multiple moles, people older than 30, those who have a family history of skin cancer and people who had numerous sunburns in their youth.
“The primary risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet light, including sunlight, sunlamps and tanning beds,” said Daniel Kellman, clinical director of naturopathic medicine with Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan. “The greater exposure, the greater the risk. Skin cancer is more common where the sun is strong, such as in the South. People who have had at least one severe (blistering) sunburn, frequent sunburns as a child, or used sunlamps or tanning beds before age 30, are also at increased risk.”
Yet, it’s never too late to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun.
Avoiding the sun and tanning beds is an ideal way to reduce the risk of skin cancer. The sun is especially intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tanning beds are an absolute no-no, Harper said.
“Tanning beds are nothing but cancer machines,” he said.
However, it’s not always possible to stay out of doors, so protection is key.
Protecting your skin can be as simple as covering up with clothing. Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. Dark colors generally provide more protection than light colors.
When exposure to sun is unavoidable, sunscreen is imperative. Those who do not consider themselves sunbathers will still need to use sunscreen on frequently exposed parts of the body such as the face, head, neck, hands, arms and chest.
What should consumers look for in a sunscreen? Harper said a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 is sufficient enough to protect against most harmful rays. A 30 protects against almost 100 percent of the sun’s harmful rays and a higher strength SPF isn’t usually necessary.
“To go to numbers higher than that doesn’t improve it a lot,” Harper said. “Maybe a tiny bit, but a 30 is ample protection for most people.”
Another quality to seek when choosing a sunscreen is it’s substantivity, Harper said.
“It simply means it sticks on if you get hot and sweaty,” Harper said. “So look at the bottom and make sure it says it’s water resistant. We can no longer use the term ‘water proof.’ The FDA has ruled against that and they weren’t really water proof in the first place. Water resistant (means) they bind to the proteins in your skin. They help if you get a little hot and sweaty.”
It is also important to use a sunscreen with broad spectrum. This means that it protects not only against the ultraviolet A light but against the more harmful B light. Both UVB and UVA light causes injury.
For sunscreens that you purchased long ago, make sure to keep an eye on the expiration date. Sunscreens can expire and those that have surpassed their date will need to be replaced.
Certain areas of the body are commonly missed during sunscreen application such as the feet, hands, ears, behind the knees, scalp, eyelids and the back of the neck. Lips are also commonly forgotten and should be protected with a balm that has an SPF of at least 30.
In applying sunscreen, make sure to rub it on at least 20 minutes before going outside. After two hours, apply sunscreen again because it degrades over time.
For women who wear makeup, many foundations now contain SPF. Women who wear foundation should seek one with an SPF of 30. If they can’t find one that suits them, many dermatologists’ offices sell powders and creams with an SPF that can be applied either over or under makeup. Marietta Dermatology & The Skin Cancer Center sells a powder that can be repeatedly applied over makeup throughout the day.
A third important part in reducing the risk for skin cancer is surveillance. It’s important to know your body and be aware of any new moles that have cropped up. Be thorough and look at all parts of your body.
“If you’re looking at yourself, look everywhere,” Harper said.
Skin cancer lesions can appear on areas of the body that receive little to no sunlight such as the bottom of feet, hands and even between the buttocks.
Harper recommends full-body scans by a licensed dermatologist every year, especially for people older than 30.
“This year more than ever we have a good reason to recommend that,” Harper said. “Last year, it was published in the medical literature, for the first time, a conclusive study that showed people who get an annual full scan exam by their dermatologist or dermatology PA - those people cut their chance of death from melanoma in half. That’s significant.”
Suspicious lesions are asymmetrical, dark, have irregular borders, variation in color and are usually larger than the head of an eraser.
If a spot looks suspicious, get it checked by a doctor immediately. A dermatologist will biopsy the lesion and have it analyzed.
For more information about skin cancer risks, signs, symptoms and treatments, visit the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at www.cancercenter.com/skin-cancer.cfm.