Take steps to prevent skin cancer

girl using sun screen
Be sure to keep the whole family safe in the sun.

As daylight hours grow lengthier and people spend more time outside, they should keep in mind that skin cancers are the most common of all cancers in the United States. Fortunately, most grow slowly and are highly curable, according to UC Davis dermatologist Barbara Burrall, director of the UC Davis Dermatology Clinic.

“Melanoma is the biggest skin cancer killer, accounting for only 5 percent of skin cancer cases but 75 percent of deaths,” said Burrall. “It is one of the few cancers on the rise in the United States, increasing at a rate of approximately 3 percent annually. As is true for all skin cancers, early detection and treatment offer the best chance of cure.”

“Melanoma is the biggest skin cancer killer, accounting for only 5 percent of skin cancer cases but 75 percent of deaths.” 
— Barbara Burrall, director of the UC Davis Dermatology Clinic

Burrall urges people to be vigilant when it comes to skin cancer. They should take care of their skin and watch out for warning signs of trouble. Here is how to protect yourself:

Tips for reducing harmful exposures

  • Use sunscreen. Anytime you go outdoors between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., apply a sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of at least 15. Higher numbers are recommended for more extreme sun conditions. The important thing is to reapply it as often as needed. Protective clothing, such as long sleeves and hats with a wide brim, are also recommended to keep those harmful rays at bay. Don’t forget the sun rays you get while driving, which can penetrate glass.
  • Stay out of tanning parlors. Don’t be fooled by advertising claims that machines that only expose you to UVA light are safe. While it is true that UVB light is more responsible for sunburn, there is evidence that UVA rays may, in fact, also play a role in the development of skin cancer. And who wants the leathery, wrinkled skin that is sure to replace that golden tan down the road? UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and contribute to the development of wrinkles.
  • Still want a tan? Try the new lotions. Sunless, self-tanning lotions are a hot new product on the market, which dermatologists don’t have a problem recommending. Look for those which contain dihydroxy acetone (DHA), a colorless sugar that interacts with dead cells on the skin’s surface, which actually causes the skin to become “stained.” Tans produced by DHA-containing lotions are believed to offer some protective effect against UVA rays, and scientists are researching DHA’s other possible beneficial uses. However, these artificial tans do not provide adequate protection, and people who use them should continue to use sunscreen and take other precautions against sun exposure. Some of the products do contain sunscreen, but like other sunscreen products, this effect wears off after a few hours.
  • Avoid tanning pills or products that contain canthaxanthin, which has been associated with harmful side effects such as hepatitis, yellow deposits on the retina of the eye and possible damage to digestion.

Both you and your doctor should check your skin. At your annual checkup, ask your doctor to have a look at your skin, especially in areas you can’t see. A recent study found that doctors were more than four times likelier than patients to detect early melanoma, which have higher cure rates.

UC Davis Dermatology OfficeThe UC Davis Department of Dermatology — a major referral center in Northern California and Nevada — takes a comprehensive, thorough approach to patient care. The department’s research makes important overall contributions to science and medicine, including allergic inflammation, skin cancer, wound repair, autoimmunity, and cell growth factors and inhibitors.

For more information, visit the UC Davis Department of Dermatology.

Know your risks

People with major risk factors should be checked at least annually (or more often, if indicated) by a dermatologist. Risk factors include:

  • An immediate family member with melanoma
  • History of significant sun exposure
  • Multiple moles
  • A fair complexion with a history of burning easily

African Americans have considerably lower rates of skin cancer than Caucasians, but still must be on the lookout. For unexplained reasons, dark-skinned individuals tend to develop melanoma or lighter areas of their body, such as on the soles of the feet, on the palms of the hands, under fingernails and inside the mouth, none of which get particularly high sun exposure.

Everyone should know what constitutes an unusual mole. Look out for any new growth or an existing mole that is growing or otherwise changing. Irregular borders, a non-uniform color, asymmetry, and large size are all potential signs of trouble, and moles with any of these characteristics should be examined by a doctor. Other types of skin cancer may appear as non-healing, crusted or bleeding areas.