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Are You Armed Against Skin Cancer?

Get into the habit of protecting yourself

You're headed out the door, running through your mental checklist: Do you have your keys, your phone, your wallet … and your skin cancer protection? Maybe sunscreen isn't in your out-the-door checklist, but it probably should be.

While skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, the majority of cases can actually be prevented or treated when caught early. That's why protection and awareness are crucial to keeping your skin healthy.

Know the risks

The most common types of skin cancer are basal and squamous cell skin cancers, which are both highly curable. Melanoma is less common, but it is much more dangerous.  If melanoma is not caught and treated early, it can spread to other parts of the body — becoming harder to treat and possibly fatal. 

The risk of skin cancer is predominantly tied to four factors, according to Sheetal Mehta, MD, a dermatologist at Rush:

  1. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds. "People who work outside or engage in outdoor activities need to be especially careful," Mehta says.  
  2. Having fair skin, which increases your risk of sunburns and sun damage. "It's less about your ethnicity and more about how fair your skin is," Mehta says. "For instance, fair-skinned Asian-Americans and Latinos have a higher risk of skin cancer than darker-skinned people."
  3. A family or personal history of skin cancer. "There are some genetic conditions that can increase your risk of skin cancer," Mehta says.
  4. A lot of moles. "People who have more than 50 to 100 moles on their bodies are at a higher risk of melanoma," Mehta says.

Take sun protective steps

Protecting yourself and your family from skin cancer requires building sun-healthy behaviors, including the following:

When planning outdoor activities:

  1. Schedule outdoor activities before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to avoid peak UV radiation.
  2. Pick a shady spot or bring your own shade (e.g., an umbrella). 

Before heading outside:

  1. Put on a wide-brimmed hat.
  2. Wear sun-protective clothing, including long-sleeve shirts and long pants or skirts:
    • Wear tightly woven fabrics or clothes made with special UV protective coatings. 
    • Choose dark colors over light ones.
    • If you are going to be in the water or engaged in vigorous activity, wear a rash guard, which is an athletic shirt or bodysuit that provides UV protection even when wet.
  3. Don't forget sunglasses to prevent eyelid skin cancers.
  4. Apply sunscreen in generous amounts (1 to 2 ounces per body area):
    • Choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 or above.
    • Look for the words "broad spectrum" or the ingredients "zinc oxide" and "titanium dioxide," which means the product protects against both types of UV rays that cause skin cancer, UVA and UVB.
    • Use sunscreen lotions or sticks, which tend to cover the skin better than sunscreen sprays.

While outside:

  1. Reapply sunscreen every two hours — and more often if you get wet or sweaty.
    • If a sunscreen claims to be "water resistant," check the label to see how much protection it actually provides (e.g., 40 minutes). 

There is no age minimum for skin cancer screening because skin cancer, including melanoma, can develop at any age, even early in life.

Get a skin exam

Doctors often recommend certain cancer screenings for people when they hit a specific age. For instance, colon cancer screening (colonoscopy) typically starts at age 50, and breast cancer screening (mammogram) typically starts at age 40.

However, there is no age minimum for skin cancer screening because skin cancer, including melanoma, can develop at any age, even early in life, according to Mehta. That's why she recommends getting evaluated once in your 20s, or earlier if you have a suspicious or changing mole, by a board-certified dermatologist. Your dermatologist will then recommend how frequently you need skin exams based on your personal risk factors.

Your dermatologist may also do photo surveillance, which involves taking pictures of moles at each visit to see if they've changed over time. Many dermatologists also recommend monthly self-exams if you are at a particularly high risk.

Additionally, some skin therapies, including chemical peels and photodynamic therapy, can help reverse sun damage or treat pre-cancerous lesions that can lead to skin cancer. Talk to your doctor about which treatments are right for you.

Worried about your moles? Learn more about your moles — including what’s normal and what’s not.

Is spray tanning a safe alternative to sun exposure? 

So can you get the look of a tan without the skin cancer risk? That's what spray tanning salons promise by offering an all-body tan in a matter of minutes. But is it really a safer option than sunbathing?

In one word: "Yes," says Mehta. "Sunless tanning is safer than going to a tanning bed or lying out by a pool because you are not causing your skin to burn, which can lead to skin cancer."

Sunless tanning lotions and sprays typically contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts with cells on the skin's surface to produce a temporary tan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved DHA for external application to the skin, but the agency warns against accidentally inhaling, ingesting or exposing sensitive mucous membranes (including lips, nose, eye area) to DHA because the long-term risks are still unknown.

Before getting a spray tan, the FDA recommends asking the salon how to protect your mouth, nose and eye area.

Mehta offers one additional warning: "Sunless tanning products don't protect you from getting a real sunburn if you go outside. You should still take precautions, like wearing protective clothing and applying sunscreen."

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