Rebecca Danhof, M.D., M.P.H.
Ultraviolet rays from the sun can cause skin damage in as little as 15 minutes. Prolonged exposure and damage can lead to various forms of skin cancer, many of which, thankfully, are preventable.
The sun isn't the only skin-damaging predator. Tanning beds, smoking and eating an unhealthy diet also can have ill effects on the body's outer layer.
What common forms does skin cancer take?
Skin cancer can take many forms, but the three most common are:
- Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It typically develops on skin that receives lot of sun, such as the scalp, face, nose, neck and hands. It often appears as a dome-shaped growth with visible blood vessels; a shiny, pinkish patch; or a sore that heals and then returns.
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. It also frequently develops on skin that is exposed to the sun such as the face, ears, lips, back of the hands, arms and legs. Squamous cell carcinoma often appears as a crusted or rough bump; a red, rough flat patch; a dome-shaped bump that grows and bleeds; or a sore that does not heal, or heals and returns.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It may develop on normal skin, or in an existing mole. Moles that change in size, color or shape; or develop symptoms such as pain, itching or bleeding can be a sign of melanoma. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin including the hands and feet (including under the nails), as well as the mouth and genital area.
Watch this video to raise your skin cancer IQ:
Preventing skin cancer
The keys to preventing skin cancer are to be sun savvy and know how to keep your skin healthy.
Here are a few ways to protect your skin:
- Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
This is when the sun is most intense and produces the greatest chance of sunburn. If you must be outside during these hours, seek shade by using an umbrella, a tree or other type of shelter. Use protective clothing and sunscreen even when in the shade. View a "More Fun, Less Sun" infographic.
- Use sunscreen when outdoors.
A higher sun protection factor (SPF) number indicates increased protection. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using at least SPF 30. Use sunscreen even on cloudy or cool days because damage from the sun's rays can still occur. Reapply every two hours. You also should reapply after swimming or when sweating. Check the sunscreen's expiration date — shelf life is typically three years, less if it has been stored in high temperatures.
- Don't use tanning beds.
Tanning beds produce harmful ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which increase your risk for skin cancer. There is also no proven evidence that use of tanning beds to obtain a "base tan" will decrease your risk of sunburn. Beyond that, use of tanning beds increases the chance of developing cataracts and ocular melanoma.
- Wear sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection.
Proper, protective sunglasses help prevent damage to the sensitive skin around your eyes, as well as cataracts.
- Don the right head gear.
A wide-brimmed hat can protect your face, ears and neck. If you wear a baseball cap, don't forget to apply sunscreen to your neck and ears. Also, wear protective clothing that covers exposed areas.
- Be aware of medications that increase your sensitivity to the sun.
Some antibiotics and over-the-counter medications can make you more sensitive to sunlight. Common drugs include antihistamines, such as Benadryl; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including aspirin or ibuprofen; certain antibiotics, including Bactrim or Tetracycline; antidepressants; antipsychotics; and some oral diabetic medications. Check with your pharmacist regarding your medication side effects.
- Protect children's skin.
Children younger than 6 months should not use sunscreen but should be protected from the sun's rays with protective clothing and shade. Children 6 months and older should have sunscreen applied regularly when outdoors.
- Perform regular skin checks.
Look for any changes to moles, freckles or birthmarks. Additionally, monitor any new skin changes that have occurred. Use a mirror to evaluate hard-to-see areas, and have regular skin evaluations by your health care provider or dermatologist.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices.
Your behaviors and habits affect the health of your skin. Do not smoke because it damages collagen and elastin in your skin. When caring for your skin, use mild soaps and daily moisturizers while limiting hot showers which can strip essential oils from your skin. Drink plenty of water to remain hydrated and get regular sleep to keep your skin looking refreshed.