Information about skin cancers, skin checks, and sunscreen use

by Sunghun Cho, M.D, FAAD MAJ, MC, USA Chief, Dermatology Service
OIC Medical Specialties Clinic

Some facts about skin cancers: Skin cancers are the most common types of cancers.  1 in 5 Americans will develop some form of skin cancer during their lifetime.  The majority of diagnosed skin cancers are nonmelanoma skin cancers - about 80% of these are basal cell carcinomas, and the other 20% are squamous cell carcinomas.  It is very rare for these skin cancers to spread to other parts of the body and cure rates of 95% can be achieved if detected early and treated promptly.  Although melanomas make up less than 5% of skin cancers overall, they are the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for adolescents and young adults 15-29 years old.  They are also the deadliest form of skin cancer.  An estimated 73,870 new cases of invasive melanoma is projected in the United States for 2015, with 9,940 deaths as a result.

Play an active role in early detection of skin cancers: All forms of skin cancer are highly treatable when caught early.  You can play an active role in the detection of skin cancers by checking your birthday suit on your birthday.  If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, talk to your health care provider about it. 

Decreasing skin cancer risk: Harmful rays of the sun include ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB).  UVA rays cause premature aging such as wrinkling and age spots.  This form of ultraviolet radiation can penetrate window glass, exposing you even when indoors or inside your car.  UVB rays are the sun’s burning rays.  Although they are blocked by window glass, they are the primary cause of sunburn.  Both UVA and UVB rays are linked to the development of skin cancer.  While there are non-modifiable risk factors for skin cancers such as genetics and fair skin, the most preventative risk factor for skin cancer - exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and indoor tanning devices - can be controlled.  Seek shade when appropriate, especially between 10a.m. and 4p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.  Wear protective clothing (such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses) when possible.  Apply sunscreen when going outdoors. 

What to look for in sunscreens: You want a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30.  SPF refers to the product’s ability to provide primarily UVB protection, which helps prevent sunburn.  The higher the SPF, the more UVB protection, but the level of protection does not increase proportionately with the SPF value.  SPF of 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays.  ‘Broad-spectrum’ provides protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB rays).  Ingredients in sunscreen that provide broad-spectrum protection include titanium, zinc, avobenzone (Parsol 1789), and ecamsule (Mexoryl).  Look for these in the list of ingredients.

How to apply sunscreens: Sunscreen should be applied to the skin 20 minutes before going outdoors.  Coat all exposed skin liberally, paying particular attention to the face, ears, hands, and arms, and rub it in thoroughly – most people apply only 20-50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen.  One ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, is the typical amount of sunscreen needed to cover the exposed areas of the body evenly.  Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every 2 hours or after swimming or perspiring heavily.
For more information about skin cancer and prevention go to these references:

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