Take steps now to protect your skin this summer – and beyond

Protecting skin from the summer sun

Can you name the largest organ in the human body? You may be surprised to learn that it’s your skin. And it performs some pretty critical functions. Your skin gives you a layer of protection from germs and injuries. It’s chock-full of nerves that give you your sense of touch. It also helps you keep a constant body temperature.

While your skin plays a unique role, it also faces some unique threats. One of the biggest dangers to your skin’s health is skin cancer.

Did you know?

According to the American Cancer Society1:

  • Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. More than 3.3 million cases are diagnosed every year.
  • Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined.
  • One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives.

The good news is you can take steps to help protect yourself from skin cancer. First, it's helpful to understand a little more about the disease.

The three types of skin cancer and how to spot them

There are three types of skin cancer, identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the following:

  • Basal cell cancer - Basal cell cancers are often flesh-colored. They may look like a waxy bump, or a flat scar. Sometimes, they have a sore in the middle.
  • Squamous cell cancer- This type of skin cancer may appear as a red bump, or a scaly, crusty patch. If you see anything like this on your skin, see your doctor.

    Both basal and squamous cell skin cancers are very curable.

  • Melanoma - Melanoma shows up as a mole, a sore or a large brown spot with darker speckles.

Few people have flawless skin free of any scars, bruises, moles, or other marks. So how do we tell the difference between a harmless freckle and the start of something more serious? The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) offers some helpful hints for what to consider when you see an unfamiliar spot on your skin. Put it to test using the A-B-C-D-Es of skin cancer.

If you see any of the following conditions, talk with your doctor right away:

  • A is for asymmetry. One half does not match the other half.
  • B is for border irregularity. The edges may be uneven, ragged or blurred.
  • C is for color. It is not even. You may see different shades of tan, brown, or black. Dashes or red, white, and blue may also be there.
  • D is for diameter or distance from side to side. Melanoma is usually larger than six millimeters when diagnosed. That's about the size of a pencil eraser. Of course, the earlier you find it, the better.
  • E is for evolving. Watch for any mole or spot that is changing in size, shape or color.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

Anyone can get skin cancer, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cautions that some people are at greater risk, such as those with:

  • A lighter natural skin color
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • Spending time in the sun — without protection — through work and play
  • A history of sunburns early in life
  • A history of indoor tanning
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily or becomes painful in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Certain types - and a large number of - freckles

Some of these things, like eye color and family history, you can’t control. But others you can. And the most important thing you can do is protect yourself from the sun. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 90% of skin cancer occurs on parts of the body that are usually uncovered. These include the face, ears, neck, and hands.

Save your skin from the sun

Protecting your skin doesn't mean staying indoors; it means taking smart steps. Here are some great tips from the experts at the American Cancer Society:

  • Between the hours of 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. the sun is at its brightest, so take protective measures to minimize sun exposure, or save outdoor activities for earlier or later in the day. Practice “the shadow rule” and teach it to children: if your shadow is shorter than you are, stay in the shade.
  • Cover up with clothing that covers as much skin as possible. Choose comfortable clothes made of tightly woven fabrics.
  • Apply sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Ultraviolet rays travel through clouds.
  • Use sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher. And be sure to apply a generous amount of sunscreen before you head outside. Reapply it after swimming, toweling dry, or perspiring.
  • Wear a hat. Cover your head with a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, ears, and neck. If you choose a baseball cap, remember to protect your ears and neck with sunscreen.
  • Remember your sunglasses. Wear sunglasses with 99% to 100% UV protection.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps.
  • Keep in mind, too, that some medicines can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. These include some antibiotics, as well as some diabetes, cancer and high-blood-pressure medicine.

Which sunscreen should you choose?

Here are helpful hints:

  • Pick one that doesn't rinse off easily with water and sweat.
  • Choose one that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Light rays called UVA are the ones that age your skin. UVB rays are the ones that can burn it. Both are linked to skin cancer.
  • Choose an SPF of 15 or higher. SPF stands for "sun protection factor." Say your skin usually begins to get red after 10 minutes in the sun. An SPF of 15 should let you stay out up to 15 times longer, or 150 minutes. Even so, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends (link opens in new window) reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours to remain protected, or immediately after swimming or excessively sweating.

Stay away from tanning beds

Every time you tan, you damage your skin. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) stresses that there is no safe way to tan. Skin damage builds up over time. Tanning beds give off the same UVA and UVB rays as the sun, and sometimes in higher levels.

Check your birthday suit on your birthday

Check your skin regularly. The AAD recommends you look over your whole body, including back, scalp, palms, sole, and between your toes. An easy way to remember your skin check is to do it every year on your birthday.

See your doctor right away if you find anything unusual. Remember the ABCDEs and get checked every year by your doctor or a dermatologist.

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