Don't wait until summer to think about skin cancer

May 2, 2018 Providence Health Team

Wear sunscreen year-round — and make sure it hasn’t expired

Clothing can be even better protection from UV rays than sunscreen

Skin checks — done on your own or by a health care provider — are necessary

It may not be quite warm enough to hit the beach yet, but you should already be thinking about how to protect your skin from the sun. Skin cancer prevention is a year-round concern, says Matthew McClelland, MD, dermatologist and medical director at Providence Bridgeport Dermatology Clinic. Here are the things you should be doing right now — and throughout the year — to help guard against skin cancer.

Update your sunscreen

Sunscreen is manufactured to last about three years, Dr. McClelland says. “After that period of time, the sunscreen is not as effective and could give you a false sense of security when you use it. If there is not an expiration date on the bottle, you should write down the date you purchased it and be sure to throw it away after three years.”

If it’s time for you to purchase a sunscreen, Dr. McClelland recommends buying one with a SPF of 30 or higher and that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. “These physical sunscreens are more effective because they block all of the ultraviolet rays,” he says. “You should use a generous amount, and don't forget to reapply after two hours in the sun or after an hour if you are in the water.” 

Dr. McClelland adds that sunscreen application isn’t reserved for summer days in the outdoors — it should be part of your daily routine all year long. “I think it is a good idea to apply a face lotion with SPF 15 to the face and backs of the hands daily throughout the year,” he says. “You just never know when there might be a nice day, even in the middle of the winter, when you find yourself outside for an extended period of time. You can get sunburned any day of the year, but it will take longer during the non-summer months. Remember that sun damage is cumulative, meaning it adds up over time; it is like miles on the odometer. Even short periods of time in the sun can add up over the years, and that is one of the factors that leads to skin cancer. It is true that sunburns are responsible for most skin cancers, but the cumulative sun exposure also plays a role.”

Get the right clothes

If your idea of a beach wardrobe is a bikini, it’s time for an update — clothing works even better than sunscreen at protecting skin from the harsh rays of the sun, Dr. McClelland says.

“Wearing a swim shirt, also known as a rash guard, is the best way to protect the upper body from the harmful rays of the sun when you are at the beach or the pool. It is really hard to apply sunscreen to every square inch of your back, and it's hard to reapply after an hour when you're having fun in the water. Hats are also a must, especially for those of us who have thin hair. We see so many skin cancers on the top of the head in men and women.”

Articles of clothing that use sun-protective fabrics should come with an ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, similar to SPF in sunscreen. UPF ratings generally run from 15 to 50-plus, with higher numbers signifying better coverage from UV rays.

Study your skin

Dr. McClelland recommends checking your skin for any signs of skin cancer once a month. You’ll want to check as much of your skin as possible, even the parts that don’t see a lot of sun, and have a partner, friend or family member look at your back and other hard-to-see spots. “Unfortunately, skin cancer is very common on the back,” he says.

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancers and can sometimes present differently than moles that can lead to melanoma, which isn’t as common as the other two skin cancers but is more deadly.

“Every day, I tell just about every patient who is having a skin exam that they need to watch for pink spots,” Dr. McClelland says. “Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are pink; some melanomas are also pink. Spots that are pink and bleed easily are often basal cell carcinoma. Spots that are pink and are tender or painful to the touch are often squamous cell carcinoma. If you have a spot that is not healing, you should have it checked by a doctor. Many basal cell carcinomas look like pimples that are just not healing.”

When it comes to melanoma, early detection is key, which is another reason self-checks can be instrumental in skin cancer protection. “For melanoma, you want to watch for a spot that is different than every other spot on your body,” Dr. McClelland says. “You can use the pneumonic ABCDE to remember what to watch for: asymmetry; border irregularity; color, meaning a darker color or more than one color; diameter, meaning a size greater than a pencil eraser; and evolution, which is a change in a spot’s size, color or shape.”

If you have any concerns, see a health care provider

There aren’t any official screening recommendations for skin cancer, but if you have a spot like the ones mentioned above, or if you have potential risk factors such as fair skin, red hair, more than 50 moles, past sunburns that caused blisters or a family history of the disease, you should get your skin checked by a physician every year.

“When you arrive at your dermatologist's office for a skin exam, you will be offered a gown and asked to undress so that all of the skin surface can be examined,” Dr. McClelland says. “A good skin check includes looking at places you might not think to keep track of, such as the scalp and between the toes. Your dermatologist will try to help you feel comfortable during the examination by keeping you properly draped as he or she evaluates your skin.”

If you have any questions about skin cancer prevention or want a skin check, find a physician near you.

AK: Alaska Center for Dermatology

OR: Providence Bridgeport Dermatology Clinic; Providence Medical Group Dermatology

WA: Providence Medical Group; Kadlec Clinic Plastic Surgery/Dermatology

CA: Dermatological Center for Skin Health at Providence St. John’s Health Center



This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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