The way you care for your skin after Mohs surgery can have a significant impact on how well you heal. Since you have already had at least one incidence of skin cancer, you may be vulnerable to future recurrences. In addition to scheduling regular skin exams, you will want to make sure that you’re following all the necessary preventive measures to protect your skin from further damage.
Sunscreen plays a significant role in skin protection. Even before being diagnosed or showing signs of skin cancer, you probably heard the recommendations over and over to wear sunscreen if you’re going to spend time outdoors — even if it’s cloudy. But now that you’ve had surgery, the recommendations are urgent warnings. If you want to protect your skin, you simply must wear sunscreen.
How Soon Should You Start Wearing Sunscreen After Surgery?
As much as you need to use sunscreen, it’s important to let the site of your incision heal fully before applying sunscreen directly on it. Keep it covered with a bandage and make sure that you apply sunscreen on any other exposed skin, including your face, neck, back of hands, arms and legs.
“Anyone who has had Mohs surgery should wear sunscreen every day,” says Dr. Nancy Marchell, a board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon at U.S. Dermatology Partners College Station. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to be outside for a few hours or just a few minutes. Even if you’re just walking outside to get your morning paper, applying sunscreen first is one of the most important things you can do to protect your skin.”
Since the incision site is covered after the surgery, you won’t have to be concerned about using sunscreen on the affected area right away. But you should already be looking at what type of sunscreen is right for you.
“Once all the stitches have been removed and the wound is closed, you should start using sunscreen,” Dr. Marchell adds. “That will usually be about one week after the surgery.”
The good news is that applying sunscreen to the affected area will have an additional therapeutic benefit: Scars and surgical wounds will sometimes become darker when exposed to sunlight, and using sunscreen over the wound as it’s healing can help minimize this effect.
Finding the Right Sunscreen After Skin Cancer
Today, there are hundreds of sunscreen products to choose from; they come in a wide range of SPFs and are available as creams, lotions and sprays. Knowing what to look for is the first step in narrowing down your choices, and that likely is going to require some homework on your end.
“There are a lot of different kinds of sunscreen on the market today, but they are not all created equal,” Dr. Marchell says. “You want to look for sunscreens that don't have harmful chemicals that could potentially cause further damage to your skin.”
It’s particularly important not to use harsh chemicals on a wound that is healing from Mohs surgery, as the skin is more vulnerable to damage. According to an extensive study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), several sunscreens contain additives that can have damaging effects to the skin and are particularly dangerous for anyone who is vulnerable to skin cancer or is recovering from Mohs surgery.
Chemicals to Avoid
Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A that is frequently used in sunscreens to help prevent signs of aging. (It’s also found in anti-wrinkle creams, body washes, moisturizers and more.) However, research from the EWG shows a clear link between retinyl palmitate and skin cancer; it reacts to sunlight and can accelerate the growth of tumors and lesions on the skin.
There could be other problems associated with it, too, as the vitamin A can accumulate in the body and lead to toxicity, which is associated with conditions ranging from liver damage to osteoporosis.
Another chemical in sunscreens that’s cause for concern is oxybenzone, which is used to block UV light and can be found in as many as 70% of nonmineral-based sunscreens. Some studies have shown it can be absorbed through the skin and cause cell damage that leads to skin cancer; it also is considered to be a hormone disruptor that can create other health problems.
The Best Sunscreens to Use After Mohs Surgery
Dr. Marchell advises looking for mineral-based sunscreens that use ingredients like zinc or titanium dioxide.
“Today, there are many options for mineral sunscreens, which are much healthier,” she explains. “This is important for anyone who is using sunscreen to be aware of, but it’s particularly important for those who have already had some sort of skin cancer and are more vulnerable to having it recur.”