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Summer skin health: Skin cancer awareness

Now that the weather is warming up and the sun has finally come out of hibernation, people are showing a lot more skin. We’ve all been wearing layers for far too long, but celebrating summer shouldn’t mean risking your health. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month and according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, which means we need to do more to protect ourselves from harmful UV rays. You can still worship the sun; just make sure you’re not doing it sans sunscreen.

Woman looking at mole

Practicing prevention

In 2007 alone, more than 58,000 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin and 8,000 cases proved to be fatal. Those statistics sound depressing, but we can turn them around. According to Dr. Ariel Ostad, a New York City dermatologist, there are three key actions that can help make sun exposure safer: prevent, detect and treat skin cancer as early as possible. He adds that education is another key piece of the prevention puzzle, as well as acceptance, since many patients avoid having their skin screened or treated due to fear or embarrassment. Seriously, folks, health should trump embarrassment – every time.

Sun protection decoded

With so many sun protection options available, it can be overwhelming to make a choice. Dr. Ostad explains there are several important ingredients you should look for when shopping for sunscreen to help make the process less confusing.

Micronized zinc oxide: Provides broad-spectrum UV protection (including UVA rays), helps soothe skin irritations and has antimicrobial properties.

Titanium dioxide: Absorbs both UVA and UVAB rays, provides long-term UV-protection and is water-resistant.

Niacin: Clinically shown to visibly improve skin tone, texture and hyperpigmentation.

Vitamin E: Helps heal and protect the skin.

Know Your SPF

SPF matters and it’s important to use at least SPF 30, regardless of your skin type or color, Dr. Ostad says, adding that sunscreens should be applied to exposed areas 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. It’s also important to pay special attention to your face, ears, hands and arms, which can often be forgotten or not properly covered — no one wants a burnt, crispy nose! Use one ounce (about the amount in a shot glass) to adequately cover your body, and if you jump in the pool or get sweaty, remember to reapply.

Skin Cancer: What to look for

Dr. Ostad recommends people have a thorough skin exam every year to detect and prevent the three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. Some melanomas can occur in areas that are covered by hair or clothing, making them difficult to self-examine. You can also look at your own skin spots regularly and be very attentive to any changes or growth, he says, adding that “a melanoma can be effectively treated if detected early.”

Moles and melanoma

Most people have some skin marks, such as freckles, moles and birthmarks. Most you’ve probably had all your life, but some of these marks may be the signs of skin cancer. Warning signs of melanoma include:

Asymmetry: Melanomas are usually characterized by an irregular and asymmetrical shape, meaning one half of the spot doesn’t match the other half.

Border: The edges of a mole may turn scalloped or rough. New skin spots with undefined borders may also appear.

Color: Existing or new fast-growing moles with uneven coloring (various shades of brown or black, colorless areas) are the first signs of skin cancer.

Diameter: Early melanoma spots usually are greater than 6mm in diameter.

What else to look for

Dr. Ostad notes that you should also watch for the following possible changes in moles. Skin cancers are usually painless so it’s important to know what signs to look for.

  • New spots or existing skin moles that start to grow quickly.
  • Color that spreads from the borders of the mole into the surrounding skin area.
  • Moles that are usually flat that begin to grow vertically.
  • Inflammation on the surrounding area of a new skin formation.
  • Changes in the surface of a mole including erosion, oozing, scaliness and even bleeding.
Malignant melanoma is the No. 1 cause of death from cancer in women in their 20s to 30s, but it can be prevented by diligently applying sunscreen regularly and consistently, and a willingness to trade real tans for the faux kind. Hats and sunglasses are also a good idea to further protect yourself this summer.

More about skin health

Skin cancer: 5 Warning signs
Skin cancer: How to protect your skin
Signs of aging skin – normal or not?

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