Skin Care Essentials

Summertime Tips for Preventing the Development of Skin Cancer

2012 boasted the sunniest spring in Chicagoland in 18 years. Since summer promises to be more of the same, it is important to play it smart when you’re out in the sun. Whether working, gardening, golfing, swimming or simply enjoying the great outdoors, beware the sun’s dangerous rays. Too much sun now can add up to skin cancer problems in the years ahead.

Skin cancer is serious business. In fact, it’s the most common of all cancers, affecting people with all skin shades, from very pale to very dark. It’s also among the most preventable cancers—and one of the most treatable types if it’s caught early. The key is to protect yourself from the sun’s harsh rays.

You can be smart in the sun by remembering a few simple guidelines.

  • Sunscreen is essential. “Everyone should wear sunscreen in the summer, no matter what your skin tone is,” advises Tina C. Venetos, MD, a board-certified dermatologist on the medical staff at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours—even if you’re using waterproof sunscreen. The higher the SPF, the more protection you’ll get.
  • Cover up. A brimmed hat can shield the scalp and face from the sun. Don’t forget to cover the back of your neck with a hat or collar, as well as the tops of your ears. These often-forgotten spots are easy targets for skin cancer: the ears, back of neck and tip of the nose.
  • Stay away. If possible, avoid the sun when it’s at its strongest: between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
  • Kids need extra care. It’s great to have kids play outside in the summer, but they need to be careful about it. “Sun damage done before age 18 is what much later can lead to skin cancer,” warns Dr. Venetos. In addition to sunscreen, she recommends UV-rated protected shirts for children—especially those with fair skin or when in the water.
  • Bundle up your baby. Babies under six months old are too young for sunscreen. So keep them out of the sun when possible and protect their skin with clothing, a floppy hat and an umbrella when they’re outside. After six months, use a child-safe sunscreen and continue using the hat and cover-up.
  • Steer clear of tanning booths. “The rays from tanning booths are just as dangerous as the sun itself,” says Dr. Venetos.
  • Get checked. It’s good to have your skin checked by a dermatologist every year. Check it yourself more frequently as well.
  • Know your ABCDs. Early signs of skin cancer can be easy to spot if you follow the ABCD rule. Examine any moles or unusual spots that don’t seem to heal. Look for:
    • A: Asymmetry. Is the mole or spot uneven in shape?
    • B: Border. Does it have an irregular border?
    • C: Color. Is there variation of color in the mole or spot? Does it mix areas of black, brown, white or red?
    • D: Diameter. A mole that’s bigger than a pencil eraser (six mm) should definitely be checked out. But don’t let small size fool you. Skin cancers can start as small as two mm.

You know your skin better than anyone, so be on the lookout for other warning signs, including:

  • A new, fleshy bump that may bleed or scab but won’t heal.
  • A pink, rough patch that doesn’t heal or go away
  • A new mole or an existing mole that starts changing

Anyone is at risk for skin cancer regardless of skin color, race, ethnicity or age. “I’ve treated teenagers with melanomas (the most serious form of skin cancer),” says Dr. Venetos. In people with very dark skin, early signs of skin cancer sometimes go unnoticed, so the cancer may be more advanced by the time it is diagnosed.

In addition, people with very dark skin may not realize their risk or may miss early warning signs, which means cancer gets diagnosed at a later and more advanced stage.

Your risk is especially high if you have light skin, many freckles, or a family history of skin cancer. People who work outside, play outdoor sports and enjoy activities on the water also are at high risk.

Plus, if you’ve ever had a severe sunburn—even in childhood—the stakes are even higher for you. Topical treatments like aloe or hydrocortisone may ease the discomfort of sunburn, but they can’t reverse the dangerous damage to your skin,” says Dr. Venetos.

What’s the smartest take on the sun? Enjoy the outdoors, but play it safe by protecting your skin. 

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