May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and that means it’s a good time to think about how you can protect yourself against this dangerous disease. Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. It affects men, women, the young, the old and people of every color. Those who are fortunate catch skin cancer early, but thousands of others die as a result of the disease. Here’s a look at why skin cancer prevention is so important.
Skin Cancer By the Numbers
Skin cancer is alarmingly common. Approximately five million people are diagnosed each year in the U.S. That means that there are more skin cancer diagnoses than there are diagnoses of colon, breast, lung and prostate cancer combined. Moreover, researchers estimate that nearly 10,000 people will die of melanoma this year.
The vast majority of skin cancer incidents are related to exposure to ultraviolet radiation. That’s why most skin cancer prevention tips relate to protecting yourself from the sun. Start using these techniques during Skin Cancer Awareness Month so that they become the habits of a lifetime.
1. Be Generous with Sunscreen
Make sunscreen a daily habit, even in the winter. The sun’s rays can still damage the skin even when temperatures are low. Accordingly, sunscreen should be applied to at least the face, neck and hands if they will be exposed to the elements. When the weather heats up, your sunscreen habit should expand to include any portions of the skin that will be exposed.
When choosing a sunscreen that might help prevent skin cancer, it’s essential to be able to interpret what’s on the label. Sunscreen is usually rated with an SPF of, for instance, 15, 30 or 50. That number refers to a measurement of how long it would take skin to burn when using that product. Thus, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 prevents skin from burning for 15 times longer than would be the case if the product weren’t used. An SPF of 15 prevents about 93% of UVB rays from reaching the skin and causing damage. Dr. Soine recommends choosing an spf of 30 or greater.
The SPF is just one item on the label. Another important factor to consider is whether or not the product offers broad spectrum protection. While the SPF blocks UVB rays, it lets harmful UVA rays get through. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and can cause just as much risk for skin cancer as UVB rays. Accordingly, it’s best to look for a sunscreen that boasts broad spectrum or UVA and UVB protection.
A good rule of thumb is to reapply sunscreen every two hours for as long as you’re going to be outdoors. Most sunscreens begin to lose effectiveness after this time period.
2. Dress for Skin Cancer Prevention
The right sunscreen is great, but it’s even better to completely block your skin from the sun, if possible. Wear a hat when you go outdoors. Your scalp is often overlooked when you’re applying sunscreen, and the top of your head is highly vulnerable to skin cancer. Any hat helps to prevent this issue, but you can gain extra protection by choosing a wide brimmed hat that can also protect your face, neck and shoulders.
When you’re going to be outside consider wearing long sleeved garments and full length pants. Additionally, go for fabrics with a dense weave and a darker color. These offer superior sun protection. As an example, your favorite jeans feature an Ultraviolet Protection Factor, or UPF, of 1700 while a pastel t-shirt rates at just a five. Clearly, the jeans are a good choice when it comes to skin cancer prevention.
3. Don’t Tan
The sun feels so good. It provides light and heat. Just being outside lifts the spirits, and millions of people think that tanned skin is far more attractive than pale skin. You might agree with them, but that viewpoint doesn’t take all of the facts into consideration. A tan is nothing more nor less than skin damage. It’s your body’s protective response to harmful exposure to UVA and UVB rays. What looks attractive today is bound to look discolored, wrinkled and leathery in a few years.
Keep in mind that tanning beds are no safer than being out in the sun. Studies show that using a tanning bed triples the odds of being diagnosed with melanoma. It also increases the risk of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Tanning salon operators are infamous for claiming that their bulbs are safe. Some will even argue that occasional UV exposure is necessary to receive the daily requirement of vitamin D. Neither of these claims holds water. The newest, most high tech sun lamps provide 12 times as much UVR as the sun, which is why tanning bed users are so at risk for various forms of skin cancer. You’re much better off getting your vitamin D from fortified milk and salmon. Foods rich in vitamin D are not only good for you, but also won’t put your health at risk.
4. Perform Regular Self Exams
When it comes to skin cancer prevention, monthly self exams are a necessity. It only requires a few moments of your time, and if you make it a habit, you’ll be more familiar with your skin and more likely to note any changes. Self exams work best if you have a full length mirror. If one isn’t available, you may have to get creative with a handheld mirror.
Begin the exam by looking at your head and face. Don’t neglect your scalp. Use the full length mirror and the hand mirror to get a look at the back of your scalp or enlist someone else’s help. When you’ve got your back to the full length mirror, use the hand mirror to inspect your back and the back of your neck. Spend some time looking at your hands and nails, moving slowly up your arms and looking at your shoulders, chest and torso.It may be necessary to sit down to get a better look at your legs, feet and toes.
You are looking for spots that seem to continually bleed and scab without completely healing. Also, pay close attention to moles, particularly if they are changing or have an asymmetrical shape. New moles may be a cause for concern as are spots that are bigger than the size of a pencil eraser.
5. Get Annual Checkups with a Dermatologist
Even if you don’t notice any significant changes in your skin with your monthly self examinations, it makes a great deal of sense to schedule annual appointments with your dermatologist. With their particular knowledge and experience, they are more likely to identify a problem in its early stages. Of course, you don’t have to restrict yourself to annual dermatologist visits. Any time you notice a new mole or other concerning change in your skin, your safest bet is to schedule an appointment. Doing so is your best opportunity to catch skin cancer in its earliest stages.
Skin cancer prevention requires vigilance and the assistance of a board-certified dermatologist. Schedule an appointment to learn more. Your dermatologist will perform a thorough exam and help you evaluate your risk for skin cancer. You may also pick up some additional skin cancer prevention tips.