Despite all the information available about how to prevent skin cancer, the number of diagnoses continue to increase every year. According to a study released by the Mayo Clinic in 2017, incidents of both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma increased dramatically in the first decade of this century compared to prior decades.
“We have more information than ever before about the dangers of sun exposure and how
it can lead to skin cancer,” says Dr. Matthew Hoffmann, a board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon at U.S. Dermatology Partners Longview in Longview, Texas. “But we still are diagnosing more and more cases of skin cancer. We, as dermatologists, have to do a better job of getting out the message of how critically important it is to protect our skin.”
“Skin cancers can be aggressive, and if they aren’t treated early — or if they aren’t treated properly — they can be devastating, even life threatening,” Dr. Hoffmann says. “Early detection is important, but prevention is truly key. Make sure you have a primary care physician or dermatologist you trust who can give you a thorough skin check at least once per year — more in those with a high risk or history of skin cancers. These checks are key for overt skin cancers, but they also allow us to identify and treat developing pre-cancers with less invasive and painful techniques.”
Here are six ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer:
No. 1: Never Skip (or Skimp on) the Sunscreen
If you’re going out, slather on the sunscreen. Even if it’s “just for a few minutes,” or if the sky is cloudy or overcast, make it a rule never to leave the house without putting sunscreen on exposed skin. Make sure you’re using a sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or higher, and if you’re going to be outside for more than just a little bit, go for a sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or more. Finally, remember to reapply it every couple of hours — or after sweating or getting wet.
“Most of us don’t use enough sunscreen. You should be putting on at least an ounce, which is two full tablespoons (or about the amount that fills an adult palm) on all exposed skin, to be properly covered," Dr. Hoffmann says.
He suggests measuring out the amount of sunscreen you’re using until you learn how much an ounce looks like.
"Some key areas to remember are ears, backs of hands, lips, and scalps — especially for those with pronounced part lines or thinning hair. It is also important to remember not all sunscreens are created equal," he adds. "The brand, in my opinion, is far less important than the number — the SPF number. The two key factors for any sunscreen are SPF 30 (or greater) and broad-spectrum coverage. This means it will provide protection from both forms of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB.”
No. 2: Cover Up Before You Go Out in the Sun
Shielding your skin from the sun is one of your best forms of protection. Sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat and lightweight, light-colored long-sleeved shirts and pants will protect your skin from sun damage.
“You can also buy UPF-rated clothing, which offers even more protection from the sun by limiting the amount of UV radiation that is allowed to pass through the material. UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) is essentially the same as the SPF (sun protection factor) ratings we are familiar with on sunscreens, but they are specific to clothing," Dr. Hoffmann says. "Interestingly, just wearing any old shirt may not be good enough. In fact, a simple white cotton tee shirt offers only about a UPF rating of 5, and even this decreases dramatically if it gets wet. However many clothing products designed specifically for sun protection offer UPF ratings of 50 or higher.”
No. 3: Watch the Clock to Save Your Skin
Certain times of day are better than others for being outside. While 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is often seen as “prime tanning time,” it’s the most dangerous time of the day because the sun is at its greatest intensity. That translates to a greater risk of sun damage for you, which can lead to problems such as skin cancer.
In addition to being aware of what times you are going out in the sun, pay attention to how much time you’re outside. If it’s been more than a couple of hours, make sure you reapply your sunscreen or cover up exposed skin.
No. 4: Bypass the Tanning Bed
Tanning beds and booths were once considered a safe alternative to the sun, but further research has shown that they are extremely harmful to the skin. In fact, people under the age of 35 who use tanning beds increase their risk for melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — by 75 percent and raise the risk of basal cell carcinoma by 69 percent.
“Many indoor tanners think they are doing the right thing by staying out of the direct sunlight, but unfortunately, they are doing one of the worst possible things for their skin,” Dr. Hoffmann says. “The UV radiation produced by tanning beds is particularly harmful and risky, with even a single tanning session increasing the risk of melanoma by 20 percent and of non-melanoma skin cancers from 30 to 70 percent. Each additional session adds to the problem, with a staggering 75 percent increased lifetime risk of developing melanoma in those who begin tanning before the age of 35.”
If you're determined to have a summer glow, try self-tanners and other alternatives.
No. 5: Protect Yourself From Sun Damage in the Car
Chances are, you’re not as safe inside your car as you think you are. Skin cancer can occur from sun damage through a window, and according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, more than half of all skin cancers appear on the left, or driver’s side, of the body.
“Normal glass doesn’t block UV radiation, so you need to still take precautions to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays while indoors or in a vehicle,” Dr. Hoffmann says. “This can include making sure you wear sunscreen and wear protective clothing, like long-sleeved shirts, a hat and sunglasses.”
Your safest bet is to forego the sunroof and putting down the top on the convertible, but if you must have an open top on the car, be sure to follow all the rules of sunscreen application and other forms of skin protection.
Dr. Hoffmann adds: “Also consider installing UV filtration films (tint) on windows of your car and windows and doors of your home; it doesn’t need to be dark tint to filter the UV rays.”
No. 6: Get Your Skin Checked — Regularly
Early detection is key, so have regular skin exams to look for changes. Do a monthly head-to-toe self exam, and ask a close friend or partner to check areas that are hard for you to see, such as your back, scalp and the back of your legs. Then schedule an annual skin exam with a dermatologist for a professional diagnosis.