As the weather finally allows us to spend more time outdoors pursuing our favorite hobby, recreational activity or chosen profession, it’s a great time to keep in mind ways to safely enjoy the great outdoors, says Julian Trevino, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology in the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
“Excess exposure to ultraviolet light (UV), found in sun rays, is the leading factor causing skin cancer,” he said. “Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer—about 3.5 million cases per year. It can result in disfigurement and death.”
Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is occurring at ever-increasing rates in young individuals. Almost 10,000 Americans will die from melanoma this year.
“We are constantly reminded of the impact of skin cancer, when we see celebrities such as Hugh Jackman sporting a dressing on his nose from recent surgery to remove a basal cell skin cancer, or read an interview with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, relating the story of his vibrant, red-headed sister whose life was cut short by melanoma,” Trevino said.
Much of your personal risk for skin cancer is determined by something you have no control over—your skin type. If you’re blonde or red-haired, loaded with freckles, and tend to sunburn easily, you’re in a group of individuals at higher risk for skin cancer development, especially if you do not heed the advice below.
Keep in mind, however, that individuals of all skin types, even those with very dark skin, can develop skin cancer. Also be aware that skin cancers can occur in areas that don’t get a lot of sun exposure—your feet, including the soles and in between your toes.
Trevino says that you can reduce your risk for developing skin cancer, or catch it early if you develop one, by following a few simple tips:
- Take a few minutes each month to examine your skin. Once you are familiar with all of your spots, lumps and bumps, you should monitor for any changes in existing skin lesions or development of new ones. It’s helpful to have a family member or close friend examine areas difficult for you to see, such as your back. For skin moles, keep in mind the “ABCDE” changes to look for: A=asymmetry (where one part of the mole looks different from the rest); B=border irregularity (look for a jagged or irregular border to a mole); C=color (multiple colors in a mole, especially red, white, blue or black, can be of concern); D=diameter (moles larger than a pencil eraser should be watched more closely); and E=evolution (watch for change over time). Also be suspicious of skin lesions, especially moles, which itch, hurt or easily bleed. If you have any skin lesions of concern, have your doctor check them out.
- Avoid prolonged outdoor activities between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when possible. Schedule your golf, tennis, walk/run or gardening for early morning or later afternoon. Also don’t forget to stay well hydrated when being active outdoors.
- Use sunscreen on a regular basis. When selecting a sunscreen, look for one labeled “broad spectrum” with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater. Good ingredients to look for in sunscreens are physical UV-blocking agents such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. In general, apply lots of sunscreen (try not to skip any areas exposed to sun) and reapply every two to three hours. You may need to reapply more frequently if you’re really working up a sweat! Also don’t forget to use your sunscreen on cloudy days. You can still sunburn through the cloud cover.
- Wear protective clothing, especially long-sleeve shirts and broad-brimmed hats. The latter will protect your ears, which are a common site for skin cancers in those who spend lots of time outdoors. For those who are particularly sun sensitive, there are companies that produce hats, shirts and other items that are manufactured to provide additional UV protection. Also, don’t forget to protect your eyes. Sunglasses with lenses that block UV rays are an easy way to do this.
- Be particularly cautious to protect little ones from sun exposure. Sunscreens are not recommended for infants under six months. Keep them protected under an umbrella or other protective covering.
- The American Academy of Dermatology does not recommend getting vitamin D from outdoor (or indoor) tanning. Instead, eat a healthy diet that includes foods rich in vitamin D, buy foods and beverages enriched with vitamin D or take vitamin D supplements. Check with your doctor to determine the form of vitamin D supplement best for you.
“You can still have fun in the sun and keep your skin healthy if you follow the few simple suggestions above,” Trevino said. “If you have any questions or concerns about your skin, ask your health professional for their best advice.”