Expert tips for skin cancer prevention

May 15, 2024 Providence Cancer Team


In this article:

  • The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

  • To protect your skin, you should wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

  • Never use tanning beds. They lead to a greatly increased risk for skin cancer.

Essential tips for preventing skin cancer

While skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, it is, in many cases, avoidable. You can take steps to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) light by following advice from your doctor. We spoke to Trevan Fischer, M.D., surgical oncologist at Providence Specialty Medical Group in Santa Monica, California, about the different types of skin cancer and how you can protect yourself.

Understanding skin cancer: Types and risks

There are many different kinds of skin cancer, but the most common types are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

There are two main layers of skin — the epidermis, or outer layer, and the dermis, or inner layer. Skin cancer begins in the epidermis, which is composed of three kinds of cells:

  • Squamous cells – form the top layer of the epidermis
  • Basal – located under the squamous cells
  • Melanocytes – cells that make pigment and are in the lower part of the epidermis

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas begin in the basal and squamous layers of the skin, respectively, and are the most common types of skin cancer. Melanoma begins in the melanocytes. “It is less common than basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, but it is more aggressive and has a higher risk of spreading to other parts of the body,” says Dr. Fischer.

The crucial role of sun protection

No matter how old you are or how dark your skin is, you should take steps to protect yourself from the sun. “The majority of sun exposure in your life happens before you are 25 years old,” says Dr. Fischer. “It is important to have good sun protection habits from the start. I like to tell people to make it part of their daily care habit: Brush your teeth, put on deodorant and use sunscreen, even on cloudy days.”

Choosing the right sunscreen

According to Dr. Fischer, you should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen — at least SPF 30 — every two hours when you’re in the sun. Reapply more often if you are sweating. If you are just going in and out of the car, you can reapply every four hours; if you are in direct sun, every two hours; and in direct sun and perspiring, every half hour. It’s important to avoid sunburn at all costs. “Choose something you would be willing to apply and reapply,” says Dr. Fischer.

Protective clothing and accessories

Ultraviolet protective clothing and rash guards have gotten more popular, both for kids and adults. They offer all-day protection without having to reapply sunscreen. If you are gardening or are in the sun for a long time, wear a wide-brimmed hat.

The importance of regular skin checks

Dr. Fischer stresses the importance of regularly checking your skin. “I encourage all adults to get a skin check once a year,” he said. “Unlike screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies, there is no universal guideline about when to start.”

When it comes to skin cancer, your skin tone and skin color matters. If you are fair-skinned with red or blond hair, you are at higher risk for sun damage and might want to see a dermatologist in your late teens or early twenties. Your family history also matters. If your family has a history of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, you should see a dermatologist each year.

Doctors have different approaches to skin checks. Some use dermoscopy (a hand held imaging device), serial photography (yearly photos of your skin damage) and newer techniques like confocal microscopy, while others rely on sight, touch and a clinical history.

Self-examination tips

You can also keep an eye on your skin yourself between skin checks. Use these ABCs to evaluate moles during self-exams:

A = asymmetry: Does one side of a mole match the other side?

B = border: Is it ragged or smooth?

C = color: Is it many different colors?

D = diameter: Anything above 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser) can be — but isn’t necessarily — worrisome.

E = evolution and everything else: Are there any changes in color, size or look of the mole?

When to see a dermatologist

If you notice any of the above signs in one or more spot on your body, make an appointment with a dermatologist. If you haven’t spotted any signs but are concerned about your risk, you may want a baseline exam with a dermatologist.

“They can discuss your risk factors and develop a surveillance plan,” says Dr. Fischer. “Early detection and treatment significantly increase the chances of successful outcomes for skin cancer.”

Lifestyle adjustments for skin cancer prevention

According to Dr. Fischer, the risk of developing skin cancer from sun exposure depends on various factors. “Those factors include the intensity and duration of exposure, the individual’s skin type and genetic predisposition, and the use of protective measures such as sunscreen and clothing,” he said. “It’s important to practice sun safety measures, such as wearing sunscreen, protective clothing, and seeking shade during peak sun hours, to reduce the risk of skin cancer. And avoid tanning beds at all costs!

It is especially bad for teenagers to use tanning beds. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, tanning bed use before age 20 can increase your chance of developing melanoma by 47%. Each time you use a tanning bed, the risk increases.

There are a number of different treatments for skin cancer, but you have a much better chance for a cure when it’s detected early. So, keep a close eye on your skin and use sun protection!

Contributing caregiver

Trevan Fischer, M.D., surgical oncologist at Providence Specialty Medical Group in Santa Monica, California

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

About the Author

The Providence Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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