Health & Medicine

Self checks, sunscreen are essential to skin cancer prevention

Despite ongoing campaigns to educate the public about sun safety and skin cancer awareness, misconceptions persist.
Despite ongoing campaigns to educate the public about sun safety and skin cancer awareness, misconceptions persist. MCT

The American Academy of Dermatology chose May, Skin Cancer Awareness Month, to launch a nationwide campaign it hopes will get you to check yourself and a loved one for suspicious skin spots that should be evaluated by a doctor.

The new awareness campaign, “Check Your Partner. Check Yourself,” urges us to take self skin checks seriously. Anyone who sees you regularly — not necessarily a trained professional — might notice a spot, freckle, mole, bump or crusty patch that has changed or just doesn’t look right. If they do, take action and have it checked. If you notice the same on someone else, speak up.

The American Academy of Dermatology’s website offers tips on how to do a home skin check.

Skin cancer found in its earliest stages is generally easier to treat and less likely to require disfiguring surgery. In some cases, early diagnosis may also save your life.

Despite ongoing campaigns to educate the public about sun safety and skin cancer awareness, misconceptions persist. Here are some of the most common ones, how to correct them and what the experts we spoke with had to say:

You can still get cancer from tanning beds

Dr. Meryl Joerg, a New York City dermatologist who has been seeing adult and adolescent patients for 20 years,

is concerned about people who still think getting a tan in a booth or tanning salon is safer than sun exposure.

“That is simply not true,” she said. “You can still get skin cancer from the UVA rays associated with tanning beds. Maybe not as often as with UVB rays from sunshine, but UVA rays can cause skin cancer.”

“UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are responsible for wrinkles and other signs of aging. UVB rays are linked more to skin cancer,” she said. “Be sure you’re protected from both.”

Just a little sunscreen won’t work

Dr. Kenneth Tsai is the physician who looks at your suspicious tissue samples and makes the diagnosis of skin cancer.

He’s a dermatologist and dermatopathologist in the Department of Anatomic Pathology and Tumor Biology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. He diagnoses five to 10 cases of melanoma a week.

“These are the bad ones that are usually very deep and advanced,” said Tsai, who also spends much of his time involved in skin cancer research. “Research has already proven that skin cancer prevention is rooted in sensible sun safety. Wear sunscreen, wear hats and long-sleeve shirts, avoid the midday sun. We know doing that works.”

According to Tsai, one of the most common mistakes people make regarding sun safety is not applying enough sunscreen. A little dab won’t do ya.

The recommended amount is usually 1 ounce, enough to fill a shot glass. It should be applied at least every two hours, more frequently if you’re sweating or get wet.

Tsai also recommends a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. And he favors using sun blocks containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

That base tan: not a good thing

Dr. Sailesh Konda hears this one all the time: Getting a little color on your skin before heading out for a sun-drenched vacation or a day on the water will protect you from getting a sunburn and damaging your skin.

“A base tan does not protect you from burning,” said Konda, who is co-director of Mohs Surgery and Surgical Dermatology and an assistant clinical professor in the division of dermatology at University of Florida Health in Gainesville.

While you’re getting that base tan, you are damaging the DNA in your skin cells, he said. “That DNA damage is irreversible and places you at increased risk of skin cancer. Long story short, do not get a tan, base or otherwise.”

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