Be Smart about Your Skin and the Sun

Keep your skin healthy for life by applying sunscreen consistently and correctly

Two beach umbrellas in an appealing ocean setting to protect skin against the sun.

by Susan Stuart, MD

Memorial Day may be weeks away, but we’ve already had plenty of hot, sunny days just right for hitting the beach, golf course or garden. Before you head out to enjoy the sunshine, though, take a few minutes to protect yourself against its most dangerous side effect — skin cancer.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer now represents more than half of all new cancers. Over one million new cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year alone.

More than 77 percent of skin cancer deaths are from melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer that can spread to the internal organs if not treated. In fact, melanoma kills one person every hour, and is the most common form of cancer among women age 25 to 29.

Alarming, yes. Fortunately, melanoma and other skin cancers can often be successfully treated if they’re caught early. What’s more, a few simple steps can go a long way toward prevention.

Monitor changes in your skin for possible signs of melanoma

Most skin cancers start out as small changes in the skin: a new spot or mole, for example, or a change in the size, shape or color of an old one. The sooner skin cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance of a cure.

Your annual physical should include an all-over skin examination. However, no one knows your body better than you. Be aware of any changes by performing regular “skin checks” to help detect cancer in its earliest stages. Make a standing date with yourself in front of a mirror to look for any changes in the skin. Use a hand mirror to carefully check your back, where new cancers are often found.

If you find a mole or suspicious spot, give it the “ABCD Test” to identify warning signs:

  • Asymmetry: Draw an imaginary line down the center. Are the two sides different?
  • Border: Is the border blurred or uneven?
  • Color: Does the color vary from one area to another?
  • Diameter: Is the diameter larger than the size of a pencil eraser? Is the mole getting bigger?

If you see anything out of the ordinary, call your doctor.

Sunscreen: Consistent application can help ward off skin cancer

Exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, commonly known as UVA and UVB rays, is the primary cause of skin cancer. So it makes sense that minimizing your exposure to those rays also minimizes your risk.

The obvious answer is to avoid the sun altogether. Since that’s not an option for most of us, step one is using a good, effective sunscreen.

With dozens to choose from, how do you know which is right for you? For starters, choose a sunscreen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 15. The SPF number refers to the product’s ability to absorb or block out harmful rays. The higher the number, the greater the protection.

Read the label to make sure it provides “broad spectrum” protection — in other words, it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. If you plan on swimming or being active, choose a water-resistant formula.

Sunscreen needs time to form a chemical barrier between the sun and your skin, so apply it 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Slather it on, using about enough to fill a shot glass, and be sure to cover every inch of exposed skin, including ears, neck, hands and tops of feet.

Use a lip balm with sunscreen to protect your lips. Reapply every two hours; if you swim or sweat, give yourself another coat as soon as you’re dry.

Still have sunscreen left over from last year? Check the expiration date. By law, sunscreens should remain effective for at least three years. Keep in mind, though, that leftover sunscreen may indicate that you’re not using enough. With proper use, an average-size bottle shouldn’t last more than a few months.

By the way, don’t let cloudy or overcast skies fool you into thinking you don’t need protection. Here in San Diego, the sun is intense, and 80 percent of burning rays can easily pass through clouds.

Protecting your skin beyond sunscreen application

In addition to following a strict sunscreen regimen, a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing can go a long way toward keeping harmful rays at bay. If you’ll be out in the sun for more than an hour or so, bring along a long-sleeved cover up and lightweight pants or long skirt to give your skin a break from the sun.

Finally, learn to love the shade — especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. Relax under a colorful beach umbrella or invest in an inexpensive pop-up tent. You can still enjoy the sand and surf — without the sunburn.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by Susan Stuart, MD, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.