Skin Cancer: Protecting Your Skin

Introduction

Excessive exposure to the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin cancer. You can reduce your risk for skin cancer by:

  • Protecting your skin, and that of your family members, from UV radiation.
  • Performing frequent skin self-examinations.
  • Finding out whether you have an increased risk for melanoma and other skin cancers.
 

The sunlight that reaches the earth has ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays. These ultraviolet (UV) rays are the main causes of damage to the skin from the sun. Some people are more susceptible than others to skin damage. Certain factors may mean that you have an increased risk for skin cancer:

  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • A family member with skin cancer
  • More than 50 moles
  • Abnormal moles (atypical moles), or moles larger than 6 mm (0.2 in.), about the size of a pencil eraser
  • A weakened immune system
  • Severe sunburns—even one—as a child, or sunburns as an adult
  • Living in a sunny or high-altitude climate or near the equator
  • Fair skin that burns or freckles easily and does not tan

Sunburns in childhood are the most damaging to the skin. The earlier in life that you are burned by the sun, the greater the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

Some people believe that tanning protects against a sunburn. But the amount of sun exposure needed to get a tan can by itself cause excessive skin damage and outweigh any possible benefit.

Test Your Knowledge

Your chances of getting skin cancer can be decreased by limiting exposure to the sun.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    The primary risk factor for developing skin cancer is excessive exposure to the sun.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    The primary risk factor for developing skin cancer is excessive exposure to the sun.

  •  

One sunburn during childhood may cause skin cancer years later.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Even one severe, blistering sunburn during childhood increases the risk of skin cancer, and every sunburn during life increases that risk.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Even one severe, blistering sunburn during childhood increases the risk of skin cancer, and every sunburn during life increases that risk.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

By protecting your skin, you may be able to prevent skin cancer or find it early when it can be more easily treated.

  • Exposure to the sun is the most common cause of skin cancer. Sunburns do the most damage, but sustained time in the sun increases the risk of skin damage and mole growth.
  • Most early skin cancers are easily seen on the skin and may be curable if treated early.
  • Some people have a higher risk for skin cancer. If you are aware that you have a higher risk, have regular skin exams and take steps to protect your skin.

Test Your Knowledge

Early skin cancer can be spotted on the skin.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Early skin cancer is often apparent when a mole changes slightly, such as a new black area, itching, or scaling, or blurred edges.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Early skin cancer is often apparent when a mole changes slightly, such as a new black area, itching, or scaling, or blurred edges.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

You can take steps to protect your skin from UV radiation. While sunscreen plays a vital role in protecting your skin from UV radiation, it can't prevent skin damage if you are exposed to the sun's rays for long periods of time. Experts recommend that you use multiple methods to fully protect your skin.

Preventing skin cancer isn't always possible. But being alert for new spots or skin growths and having your doctor check your skin regularly may help find skin cancer early when it can be more easily treated.

Protect your skin

  • Stay out of the sun during the peak hours of UV radiation, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear protective clothing:
    • Wide-brimmed hats that protect the face and neck
    • Tightly-woven clothing made of thick material, such as unbleached cotton, polyester, wool, or silk
    • Dark clothing with dyes added that help absorb UV radiation
    • Loose-fitting long-sleeved clothing that covers as much of the skin as possible
    • Clothing that has sun protection factor (SPF) in the fabric that does not wash out
  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, summer and winter, on both cloudy and clear days.
  • Apply sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB radiation to all exposed skin, including lips, ears, back of the hands, and neck. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going in the sun, and reapply it every 2 hours and after swimming, exercising, or sweating.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses that block at least 99% of UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Be careful when you are on sand, snow, or water, because these surfaces can reflect 85% of the sun's rays.
  • Avoid artificial sources of UVA radiation, including sunlamps and tanning booths. Like the sun, they can cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.

A child's skin is more sensitive to the sun than an adult's skin and is more easily burned. Babies younger than 6 months should always be completely shielded from the sun. Children 6 months and older should have their skin protected from too much sun exposure.

Know the ABCDEs of early detection

Skin cancer can be cured if found and treated early. If it is not discovered or treated until too late, it can spread throughout the body and may be fatal. Skin cancer often appears on the trunk of men and on the legs of women. Learn your ABCDEs, the changes in a mole or skin growth that are warning signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: One half doesn't match the other half.
  • Border irregularity: The edges are ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • Color: The pigmentation is not uniform. Shades of tan, brown, and black are present. Dashes of red, white, and blue add to the mottled appearance. Color may spread from the edge of a mole into the surrounding skin.
  • Diameter: The size of the mole is greater than 6 mm (0.2 in.), or about the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolution: There is a change in the size, shape, symptoms (such as itching or tenderness), surface (especially bleeding), or color of a mole.

Get to know your skin

Skin cancer, including melanoma, is curable if spotted early. A careful skin exam may identify suspicious growths that may be cancer or growths that may develop into skin cancer (precancers).

  • Examine your skin once every month. Get to know your moles and birthmarks. And look for any abnormal skin growth and any change in the color, shape, size, or appearance of a skin growth.
  • Check for any area of skin that does not heal after an injury.
  • Have your doctor check your skin during any other health exams. Most experts recommend having your skin examined regularly.
  • Bring any suspicious skin growths or changes in a mole to the attention of your doctor.

Test Your Knowledge

A suntan is a sign of good health.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    While a suntan may present the image of an active outdoors person, it also damages and ages the skin and may increase the number of moles. Moles are not normally present at birth—they begin appearing during childhood and are caused by sun exposure. A high number of moles increases the risk of skin cancer.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    While a suntan may present the image of an active outdoors person, it also damages and ages the skin and may increase the number of moles. Moles are not normally present at birth—they begin appearing during childhood and are caused by sun exposure. A high number of moles increases the risk of skin cancer.

  •  

You can avoid the damaging rays from the sun by getting a tan in a tanning booth.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Tanning booths and sunlamps may be sources of UV radiation that are just as dangerous as that from the sun.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Tanning booths and sunlamps may be sources of UV radiation that are just as dangerous as that from the sun.

  •  

If you are going to be out in the sun for a lengthy period of time, sunscreen is the best protection for your skin.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    While sunscreen plays a vital role in protecting your skin from UV radiation, it cannot prevent skin damage if you are exposed to the sun's rays for long periods of time. Experts recommend that you use multiple methods to fully protect your skin, such as avoiding the sun, seeking shade, wearing protective clothing (long sleeves, pants, wide-brimmed hats), and applying sunscreen.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    While sunscreen plays a vital role in protecting your skin from UV radiation, it cannot prevent skin damage if you are exposed to the sun's rays for long periods of time. Experts recommend that you use multiple methods to fully protect your skin, such as avoiding the sun, seeking shade, wearing protective clothing (long sleeves, pants, wide-brimmed hats), and applying sunscreen.

  •  

It is more damaging to the skin to experience long hours in the sun than to have briefer exposures when the sun is particularly intense.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Any exposure to the sun's rays while they are most intense can severely damage your skin and make further damage more likely with the next UV exposure.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Any exposure to the sun's rays while they are most intense can severely damage your skin and make further damage more likely with the next UV exposure.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you know how to protect your skin from UV radiation and skin cancer, it's a good time to do a thorough skin self-exam. Then you will be ready to talk with your doctor or a dermatologist about your skin's health, particularly if you notice any suspicious growths.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Amy McMichael, MD - Dermatology
Last Revised July 30, 2013

Last Revised: July 30, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.