Our skin is our largest organ and it is under constant attack from the environment around us. While it does its job to protect us from the elements, our skin does not always come out scot-free.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States with 5.4 million diagnoses annually. There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. It can be hard to spot skin cancers because they often do not look like a traditional mole or bump on your skin. They can be flat or raised and can also come in the form of scaly patches or sores that do not heal for weeks or months. Sometimes, skin cancers can present as open sores with draining fluid and red patches that seem harmless. One way to identify any potential problems with your skin is by using the ABCDE method:
- Asymmetry– Meaning the shape is not uniform as benign moles tend to be symmetrical.
- Borders — Skin cancer often has borders that are not well-defined.
- Color — Skin cancers often have multiple colors or shades. Most non-cancerous moles are one solid color.
- Diameter — Skin cancers are typically 6+ mm (or 1/4 of an inch) in diameter. This is not always the case.
- Evolving — Skin cancers can change in size, shape or color unlike non-cancerous spots.
What is Skin Cancer & How Does It Form
Skin cancer, a condition in which skin cells grow out of control, appears to be on the rise, and it’s also one of the deadliest forms of skin disease. The risk factors for developing skin cancer include ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds, exposure to arsenic and other chemicals, previous history of skin cancers (basal cell or squamous), family history of melanoma or via other cancers that have spread through the blood (metastatic). To reduce your chances of developing this devastating disease, a rule of thumb is to always avoid tanning beds or other sources of UV light.
We’re all guilty of neglecting our skin sometimes, especially at a young age. We forget to moisturize and we don’t wear sunscreen regularly. Much of our skin damage began accumulating during childhood and presents itself in adulthood. It is important to understand what the different types of cancer are and how they form so we can be more informed citizens and care for our skin moving forward. First, we will discuss basal cell carcinoma. Basal cells are the most common cells on your body and typically live in your basement membrane, which is a thin layer that surrounds you pores (think of it as a sort of protection barrier between bacteria outside and inside). When these cells become damaged by overexposure to UV rays or other things like severe acne breakouts or burns, they can turn into cancerous tumors known as Basal Cell Carcinomas.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops when the cells that give our skin their tan color begin to grow in an abnormal manner. These cells are called melanocytes. Melanin, or tanned skin, exists to protect deeper layers of the skin from sun damage. Melanomas can form as a result of genetics or too much UV exposure and are the least common form of skin cancer.
Finally, there are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of skin cancer is formed in the outer and middle layers of the skin. While squamous cell carcinomas can become difficult to resolve if left untreated for long periods of time, they are rarely lethal. Squamous cell carcinoma is most commonly caused by prolonged exposure to UV rays.
Skin Cancer Prevention
While some people are predisposed to skin cancers due to genetics, there are several ways you can protect yourself from skin cancers that form due to prolonged UV damage.
- Wear sunscreen every single day. Yes, even on rainy days, when you are indoors or even in the winter. UV rays can penetrate clouds fairly well. Up to 80% of UV rays penetrate clouds on cloudy or rainy days. You might also be wondering why you need to apply sunscreen if you are indoors. Simple, windows! While some UV rays are blocked by glass windows, you can still get significant damage when you are near windows. In fact almost 100% of UVA rays penetrate through glass. Finally, while the UV index (a measurement of how much skin damaging ultraviolet radiation reaches the Earth’s surface) is lower in the winter, long exposure can be quite damaging. It is important to note that in the summer, the UV index tends to be significantly higher.
- Don’t feel like wearing sunscreen all over your body? Then UV protective clothing might be the right answer for you. This type of clothing is known as UPF clothing. Be careful to buy from companies you trust as not all UPF clothing is made with quality, safety and longevity in mind.
- Finally, avoid direct sun exposure when the sun is strongest. This is typically between 10 AM and 2 PM. If you plan to spend time outside during this time, you guessed it — wear your sunscreen!
The best thing you can do to protect yourself from skin cancer is to contact your dermatologist and book an appointment ASAP! They will be able to help you pick out sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, or help you form other habits that are going to reduce your risk of getting skin cancer in the future. Another important note is that most of us have spent a significant amount of time outdoors during the pandemic. We recommend that every single person ask their dermatologist for a full body skin cancer check. We hope you have a fun and adventurous summer, but be sure to protect yourself!