Warm, bright, sunshiny sunlight. It is essential for so many aspects of our lives — from the water, food and air we need — to the circadian and hormonal rhythms of our bodies —and even our mental health.
We need — and we often crave — sunshine. Even our skin, our largest organ, can put sunlight to good use, using it to make Vitamin D. But overexposure to sunlight can have serious skin consequences that range from disfiguring to deadly.
Skin cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers, and it afflicts people of every skin type and tone. But it’s easier than ever to reduce your risk of this cancer. The key is to know your enemy, and to take simple steps to block its assault.
The Culprit You Can’t See — and the Enemy You Can Feel
There are many unknowns about the exact causes of skin cancer, but there is one thing we can point to as a clear — and invisible — culprit: ultraviolet (UV) rays, a type of radiation that can penetrate and damage skin cells.
Sun lamps and tanning beds produce UV rays, but most of us get UV exposure from sunlight. UVA rays are most abundant, and they can penetrate deep into human skin, damaging connective tissue and the skin’s DNA. UVB rays — the ones we use to make Vitamin D — are mostly absorbed by the ozone layer and don’t reach as far into the skin as UVA rays, but they can still cause sunburn and damage DNA.
Sun Protection is an Everyday Thing
We might be conjuring up images of freckles, tans and burns cultivated during long days at the beach or by the pool, but UV exposure is an everyday deal. It is reflected off of surfaces from water to snow to cement, and overexposure to the sun can happen in any season, in any weather and on any terrain. It can damage skin of any shade.
While UV rays are invisible, the damage they create is not. Skin cancer is a cancer we can see — and that makes it possible to catch in its earliest stages. When it’s caught early, almost all skin cancers can be treated successfully.
Your Skin — Check It Out
The best (also fastest and freest) way to catch skin cancer early is to check your own skin regularly — about once a month. Anything that you find on your skin that is new, changing or unusual should get checked by a dermatologist right away.
It’s also helpful to schedule an annual skin check with a dermatologist, especially if you have risk factors for skin cancer in addition to UV exposure, such as:
- Light-colored skin
- Red hair
- Family history of skin cancer
- Ten or more atypical moles on your body
- Certain kinds of cancer treatments administered, especially in childhood
- An organ transplant
The Foe with Many Forms
Skin cancers can appear in many different shapes, sizes and colors, and the same type of cancer can look different on different people. But there are a few common characteristics that may help you spot a potential malignancy.
By far the most common — and most treatable — kinds of skin cancer are basal and squamous cell cancers. Although they can develop anywhere on the body, they usually form on skin that is frequently exposed to the sun (your face, ears, head, neck and arms).
Basal and squamous cell cancers:
- Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas, similar to a scar
- Raised reddish patches that might be itchy
- Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
- Rough or scaly red patches that may crust or bleed
- Small translucent or shiny bumps, which might have blue, brown, black, pink, pearly or red areas
- Open sores that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
- Wart-like growths
Melanoma is much less common than basal and squamous cell skin cancers, but it is more likely to grow and spread. It’s also harder to treat when not caught early. A good rule of thumb for recognizing potential melanoma growths is the ABCDE rule:
- Asymmetry: One half is unlike the other half
- Borders: Irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border
- Color: Varied from one area to another
- Diameter: 6mm or larger — the size of a pencil eraser
- Evolution: Looks different from other growths on your skin, or is changing in size, color or shape
These and other types of skin cancers can also look different from what’s listed here. It’s easy to be confused or anxious when you start looking more closely at your skin, especially if you have a lot of moles or freckles. Remember that, even if you haven’t paid close attention before, you know your skin better than anyone else. Anything that concerns you is worth bringing to your doctor’s attention.
The Great Cover Up
What’s better than early detection? That’s right: having nothing to detect. The most direct way to reduce your risk of developing any form of skin cancer is by reducing your exposure to UV rays. There are some simple ways to do this:
- Steer clear of indoor tanning.
- Schedule outdoor activities before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. (or 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during daylight savings time) — the sun’s rays are strongest between those hours
- Use sunscreen or protective clothing any time the UV Index is 3 or higher
This applies year-round, regardless of the weather. If you work outside, or if you are going to be outside for a long period of daylight hours, there are still lots of ways to reduce your UV exposure, including:
- Seeking the shade whenever possible
- Wearing sunscreen that is SPF 15 or greater — make it part of your morning routine, like putting on deodorant, and reapply according to the package directions
- Wearing clothes that cover your skin — if you are at high risk for skin cancer, consider specialized clothing with UV protection
- Wearing wide-brimmed hats and wrap-around sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays
Showing the sun a little less skin is good for all kinds of reasons. Along with causing sunburn and potentially skin cancer, UV rays also can change the texture of your skin and cause it to age prematurely. UV rays also may contribute to eye diseases such as cataracts and cancers on the eyelid.
Being outdoors on a bright and sunny day can do wonders for your body, mind, and heart; taking a little time before you head out to cover up, whether with clothing or with sunscreen, can seriously save your skin.