Q:  What causes skin cancer?

A:   Several factors influence who gets skin cancer, but we now know that ultraviolet light exposure is a major risk factor for skin cancer.  Ultraviolet light can be found in both natural sunlight and in tanning beds.  There are two factors to consider–the total amount you get over a lifetime, and the number of sunburns you get.   Patients with fair skin and light eye color are especially vulnerable to the damaging rays of the sun, but everyone is susceptible.  So having naturally olive or dark skin does not mean you get to skip sunscreen!  Skin cancer is the most common cancer in human beings, and 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer at some time in their lifetime.  Family history can also play a role, especially for the melanoma type of skin cancer, which is the most dangerous type.  Patients with a lot of moles are at increased risk for melanoma as well.  The incidence of melanoma has been increasing for at least the last 30 years, especially in women, and now it is the most common cancer for young adults 25-29 years old (and second most common cancer in adolescents and young adults 15-29 years old).  So it can happen at any age!

Q:   What can I do to prevent skin cancer?

A:  The best prevention is protection from the sun and avoidance of tanning.  Sunscreens are very important, but also think about wearing wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and long sleeves.  Don’t forget that sunscreen has to be reapplied every 2 hours, and more often if you’ve been in the water, sweating, or toweling off.  Swim shirts are great options if you are worried about having to reapply frequently at the pool. You also should apply the sunscreen 15 minutes BEFORE going outdoors, and need an SPF of at least 30.  You should also look for the words “broad spectrum”, which means that the sunscreen covers for both ultraviolet A and B rays.  You can now get sunscreens in lotions, gels, sprays, and wax sticks, so everyone should be able to find one that they like.  If you have acne prone skin, look for “oil free” or “non-comedogenic” sunscreens that won’t block your pores.  Don’t be stingy either–you’re supposed to use an ounce of sunscreen every time you apply.  That’s about a shot glass full.  That means you should have used up your 8 ounce bottle of sunscreen in 8 uses!  Also, it is best to seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.

Q:  How do I tan safely?

A: Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a safe tan.  Tanning is your body’s response to damage to your DNA.  The more times you damage your DNA, the more likely you are to develop skin cancer (and the more you age your skin).   There are a variety of “fake tans” available instead, including tanning lotions, tan application cloths, and spray-on applications.  If you want to apply an artificial tan, remember to exfoliate first, so you get a more even application.

Q:  What do I do if I think I may have skin cancer?

A:  Make an appointment to see a dermatologist right away.  Most skin cancer is curable, especially if detected and treated early.  Melanoma, which is the type that comes from moles, is the most deadly type, so it is most important to catch these as soon as possible.  Most skin cancer can be treated in the office.  If caught in the early stages, some lesions may even be treated non-surgically.  It is recommended you get a screening skin exam yearly, especially if you have risk factors for skin cancer such as:  fair skin, light eyes, age over 50, greater than 50 moles, blood relative with melanoma, a previous diagnosis of skin cancer, or history of significant sun exposure or tanning history.  The American Academy of Dermatology has a saying:  “Get your birthday suit checked on your birthday.”

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