In the summer months, we’re all in need of a bit of rest and relaxation. Whether you choose to sit on the grass at your local park or enjoy a Caribbean vacation, there are some things you need to consider while you’re having fun—SPF protection. Sun exposure is a year-round concern. But it is especially dangerous when you’re skin is exposed for prolonged hours to the blazing sunlight during summer months. Our relationship with the sun is a complex one: we need the sun because it’s the best source of vitamin D, yet too much sun exposure leaves telltale signs of skin damage such as wrinkles, sallowness, and age spots. Over time, however, prolonged UV light exposure causes skin cell damage that leads to cancer.
There are three main types of skin cancers, which are based on the cell type that is affected by sun exposure: basal cell skin cancer (common in fair skin people), squamous cell skin cancer (common in dark skin people), and melanoma. Of these types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer and the most difficult to treat.
Melanoma develops in pigment cells called melanocytes. People are at an increased risk for developing melanoma if they’ve had a history of blistering sunburns or had intense sun exposure. While melanoma commonly shows up on chest, back, and extremities, melanomas can also be found under the nail bed, on the palms of the hand, or on the soles of the feet. Melanomas also begin to develop in moles or pigmented skin areas such as birthmarks or freckles.
The diagnosis of melanoma is not an easy task because these skin changes can be easily missed, especially when the focus of your doctor’s visit may be related to something else altogether. With limited time to discuss your most pressing concerns with your physician, it’s likely that a skin exam won’t make it on the roster of things to evaluate during a physical exam. So it’s important that you look at your skin and bring up any changes you notice to your doctor. Some things to look out for include noticeable changes in an existing mole, the development of a new mole, or the formation of an unusual growth or pigmented patch of skin. Is the mole oozing or bleeding? Does your mole itch? Has the growth changed color? Does it have an irregular border? Is your mole asymmetrical in shape?
Despite the characteristic changes of moles and pigmented areas of skin, it is still very difficult to identify the changes, especially if the occur in hard-to-see areas like your scalp or back. For areas that are hard to see, ask a family to help or use a handheld mirror.
With all cancers, it’s better to prevent it from occurring in the first place, then to treat it. Since melanoma develops due to sun exposure, SPF protection makes sense, right? Well new research says that sunscreen doesn’t completely shield you from UV light damage. This may come as quite a surprise given that SPF protection has been rigorously supported as a preventive measure against skin cancer.
Slather Sunscreen Again and Again
Wait! Before you throw out your SPF, don’t because you still need it. The study identified TP53, which is a tumor suppressor gene that corrects the UV ray damage done to DNA in skin cells. Researchers looked at the protective impact of SPF-50 creams used on mice. In spite of the use of the heavy-duty sunscreen, the mice still developed tumors albeit fewer tumors than the mice who were not given SPF protection.
To protect against skin cancer take the following precautions:
- Stay out of the sun during peak hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
- Wear clothing that protects your skin from the sun (e.g., brim hat, sunglasses)
- Request a annual mole check
- Check your skin for new moles, abnormal changes in existing moles, and suspicious lesions
- Use a sunscreen with an SPF ≥ 30 when you’re outdoors (during intense sun exposure reapply SPF every 2 to 3 hours and if you are swimming or sweating a lot reapply it every 1 to 2 hours)
Skin cancer is the most common cancer among Americans, and melanoma is an aggressive cancer that carries a poor prognosis the farther away it migrates from skin to organs and bones in the body. If it’s found early, before metastasis, it is highly treatable. Protect yourself this summer and throughout the year because UV light can damage DNA at any time.