May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month
We’re on the cusp of summer, which is a great time to think about protecting your skin from the sun.
More than 4 million people are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer every year in the US. Damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation is responsible for the majority of cases.
The best skin cancer prevention tip? Limit your exposure to UV light, either from the sun or a tanning bed.
Related post: Does niacinamide prevent skin cancers?
Also, skin cancers, even melanomas, are very treatable if caught early. Know your skin and be alert for changes.
Protect yourself from UV light
Use a UV Index app
In general, the most damaging UV rays are in the middle of the day. When possible, I stay indoors or in the shade. If outside, I wear a hat and use an effective sunscreen (see below).
Depending on where you live, the UV index (a measurement of the strength of the UV rays) may be higher or lower than in other parts of the country. The higher the UV Index, the more damaging the sun’s rays. And clouds don’t protect you from those rays!
To help me plan outdoor activities, I use a UV index app on my phone. It shows me hour-by-hour what the UV index is for my zip code. There are several available apps (free!) for both iOS and Android devices. These are the two I recommend.
Know your SPF
There are two types of UV rays, UVB and UVA. UVB rays cause sunburns. UVA rays cause more long-term damage that leads to age spots and wrinkles.
Related post: What sun damage looks like
An SPF—Sun Protection Factor—rating is an estimate of how effectively a sunscreen product reduces the time it takes UVB rays to burn your skin.
An SPF of 15 is adequate protection. Beyond that you are paying for only a percent or two of extra blocking.
Skin experts say it’s more important to use enough sunscreen and apply it frequently. They recommend using about a full shot glass every couple of hours.
I have lots more information about SPF and sunscreens in a previous post, How to choose the best sunscreen.
Avoid tanning beds
Indoor tanning is a known carcinogen (an easily avoidable one!) and is estimated to cause as many as 400,000 cases of skin cancer every year, including 6,000 cases of melanoma.
Related post: Tanning beds and skin cancer
Routine screening for skin cancer is no longer recommended. However, if you are at higher risk based on your family or personal health history, talk to your doctor about a screening plan that is right for you.
Common signs of skin cancer
Melanoma (pictured above) is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Remember these ABCDEs and get a mole or lesion checked out if:
- Asymmetry: One side of the mole/lesion is larger than the other.
- Border: The mole/lesion has irregular edges.
- Color: The mole/lesion is multicolored—brown, black, red and even white or blue.
- Diameter: The mole/lesion is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser (about ¼ inch).
- Evolving: The mole/lesion is growing or changing color
Related post: Melanoma—Prevention and detection
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers typically aren’t black like melanomas, but any mole/lesion that is growing or changing in any way should be looked at by a doctor.
Apps to detect skin cancer
In the age of smartphones, several apps have been developed to help people diagnose their moles. Most ask you to send a picture of your mole and then charge a small fee for the analysis (about $5).
The Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) did a review of these apps and concluded they are about 70% accurate. Is that good enough? Personally, I’d rather pay my primary care doctor or a dermatologist to look at a worrisome mole, as well as my entire skin. That seems more cost effective in the long run.
However, the apps can provide sun safety tips, information about the ABCDEs, and pictures of suspicious lesions. Some also allow you to track moles so you can monitor changes.
Skin cancer resources
The following resources have excellent information about risk factors, as well as how to do a self examination and how to determine if a mole should be seen by a doctor.
- The American Cancer Society: Skin Cancer and Early Prevention
- The American Academy of Dermatology: Spot Skin Cancer
- The Mayo Clinic: Skin Cancer
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Basic Information About Skin Cancer
Teach children from an early age to use sensible precautions to protect themselves from too much sun. They will thank you as they avoid future skin cancers and see their skin age more gracefully!