Protecting your skin from the sun as easy as ABC
As summer approaches, many people will begin to hit the pools, lakes and trails.
But with the outdoor fun comes an increased risk for skin cancer if you don’t properly protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70.
In light of those statistics and May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, here are answers to your most common questions about skin cancer.
What are the different types of skin cancer?
The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, accounting for 80% of skin cancers. This is typically caused by long-term exposure to the sun.
“It’s also the least aggressive or least likely to kill you,” said Dr. Laura Ferris, associate professor of dermatology at University of Pittsburgh.
The next most common type is squamous cell carcinoma, which occurs often in people with suppressed immune systems from another illness or condition.
The least common but most deadly is melanoma. This type of skin cancer typically has a genetic predisposition.
“Melanoma is very curable when caught early but can be deadly when caught late,” Ferris said.
How are they diagnosed and treated?
Doctors encourage patients to do a check of their bodies for new, concerning or unusual moles and lesions.
“These are the things that usually raise a (red) flag,” said Dr. Jonathan Lee, director of surgical oncology at Allegheny Health Network and a melanoma and complex skin cancer specialist.
A doctor can choose to biopsy questionable lesions or moles. If it is determined to be cancer, it will be removed through surgery. Ferris said, sometimes, further treatment is needed, such as chemotherapy.
What is my risk?
Experts say the most common risk factor for skin cancer is sun exposure and tanning bed use.
“The more sun exposure you’ve had, the greater your risk,” Ferris said.
Other risk factors include age, family history and fair skin that burns easily.
How can I prevent skin cancer?
Lee said he tells his patients to practice the ABC’s of skin cancer prevention.
A is for avoiding excessive sun exposure, B is for blocking the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays and C is for checking your skin regularly for any concerning spots.
Ferris said wearing a hat, protective clothing and sunscreen all are reliable ways to protect the skin as well as avoiding the sun during the most intense part of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Always avoiding tanning beds is a must as well, the doctors said.
Anyone with a family history of the disease should have regular skin checks by a dermatologist to identify and treat any concerning spots early.
What kind of sunscreen should I use?
Physical blockers and chemical sunscreen are both safe but work in different ways, Ferris said.
“Physical blockers, they literally just deflect the UV rays,” she said. “They are less likely to be absorbed through your skin into your bloodstream.”
Chemical sunscreen soaks into the skin and absorbs the UV rays before they do damage.
Ferris said research shows chemical sunscreen can be absorbed and show up in the bloodstream, but she said there hasn’t been any evidence it causes harm.
“The sunscreens that we have available in the United States are FDA approved and considered to be safe,” she said.
Ferris said you should use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that provides broad spectrum protection.
“Ideally, you want to reapply every two hours or after you sweat a lot or swim,” she said.