University of Pennsylvania Health System

Focus on Cancer

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Protect Yourself From Skin Cancer

Rachel Woods, RN, is a nurse with surgical dermatology at Penn Medicine. 

February is National Cancer Prevention month and it’s a great time to remind everyone about the simple guidelines that can prevent or decrease the risk of certain types of cancer.

Along with routine screening exams such as mammograms and colonoscopies, your healthcare provider may recommend checking your skin for any new or changing lesions, moles, or marks.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than lung, breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.

The good news is that skin cancer is the easiest to treat and cure if detected early. And, although most people know if they are at a higher risk for skin cancer, some may not.

There are three types of skin cancer:
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma
Here are some risk factors for skin cancer:
  • Red or blond hair
  • Fair skin
  • A blistering sunburn early in life
  • Prone to sunburn
  • Any tanning bed use
  • Spending a lot of time outdoors for work or recreation
Historically, skin cancer was most commonly diagnosed in older adults. More cases are now being seen in younger people and an alarming increase of melanoma in young women that is likely associated with tanning bad use.

How to look for skin cancer

It is never too early to start screening your skin. Take a few minutes to look at yourself in a full-length mirror and use a handheld to visualize areas hard to see. You should be familiar with the moles and freckles on your body. Take note of anything that is changing in size, shape, or color. Also watch for pink shiny or scaly lesions that may bleed easily and don’t heal.

Now that you know to give your skin a good look on a regular basis, it’s important to know sun protection. There are three things everyone needs to remember when it comes to precautions outdoors:
  1. Seek shade.
  2. Cover up.
  3. Use sunscreen.

Shade is important particularly when the sun is at its strongest. Typically this is between the hours of 11am and 4 pm. If the sun is at its strongest, your shadow will be shorter than you.

Covering up with clothing is a good start, but all clothing is not created equal when it comes to sun protection.

Clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) is specifically designed to protect from both UVA and UVB rays yet is cool and comfortable. These garments are perfect for children and anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors. Be aware that the efficacy of these garments decreases over time as the garment is worn and washed.

You can add UPF to regular cotton clothing by adding a sun guard detergent to your wash (sunguardsunprotection.com). This adds an invisible shield to your cotton clothing that bumps a regular white cotton T-shirt to UPF 30 through 20 washes.

Also, keep your eyes safe. Look for sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays and wear them even if your contact lenses have UV protection. To further protect your eyes in addition to scalp, ears, and neck, wear hats with a wide brim.

Using sunscreen is not a new recommendation. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently changed the rules about sunscreen labeling to help consumers understand what they are buying.

Sunscreen labels must be accurate and cannot claim to do things the product hasn’t been proven to do. Be wary of older products that claim to be “water or sweat proof,” offer “instant protection,” or “block” the sun’s harmful rays.

These are examples of unproven claims are no longer allowed on packaging.
When purchasing sunscreen, look for:
  • Broad spectrum sunscreen (or the ingredient “avobenzone”), which means that it covers both UVA and UVB rays.
  • No less than 30 SPF, as recommended by The American Academy of Dermatologists.
  • Water-resistant products if you will be swimming or sweating.

How to apply sunscreen

  1. Apply liberally to skin at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. If you are in a bathing suit “liberally” means enough to fill a shot glass.
  2. Reapply at least every two hours or after you swim.
  3. Don’t forget your lips! Use an SPF 30 lip balm to keep this sensitive skin protected.

Free skin cancer screening

Take advantage of Penn Dermatology’s annual free skin cancer screening clinic on Saturday, May 19. Call 215-662-2737 to make an appointment now.

Remember, sun safety is year-round. Sign up for a free skin cancer screening today.
Melanoma Skin Cancer – Get the Facts

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