Protect Yourself Against Skin Cancer

Brian Young

by Brian Young | August 17, 2010 @ 09:00AM

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For the last few decades, the American ideal of beauty has included a suntan. We equate a tan with a healthy lifestyle. As a result, millions of people lay outside for hours at a time in order to produce a tan. Unfortunately, this extended exposure to the sun increases the risk of skin cancer. Tans are not healthy, despite our cultural ideals. Studies have shown that too much sun damages skin, increases wrinkles, and increases the risk of skin cancer. If you think you may have spent too much time in the sun, or if you are concerned about skin cancer in general, consider the following prevention and detection suggestions.

Types of Skin Cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and Malignant Melanoma. Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type. It is a slow-growing form of cancer that does not spread to other parts of the body. It can appear as oval or round patches on the skin.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. It grows at a faster rate than Basal Cell Carcinoma and does have the potential to spread. Often, Squamous Cell Carcinoma appears as a small round bump that is elevated from the skin. It is sometimes red, with a sore in the center that does not appear to heal.

Malignant Melanoma is the least common but most severe form of skin cancer. It usually begins on or around moles, and spreads. If detected early enough, all three forms of skin cancer can be cured.

Detecting Skin Cancer

With skin cancer, just like any other form of cancer, early detection is key. Anyone concerned about skin cancer should become familiar with all of the spots, moles, and bumps on his/her skin. Regularly check the skin for abnormalities or new growths. Anything unusual should be watched very carefully. Growth, spreading, and variations in color on any spots or bumps should be considered suspicious. Going to a doctor to have them checked out is a good idea.

As stated before, Malignant Melanoma usually develops on or around moles on the skin. Most individuals have at least a few moles on their bodies. But because Malignant Melanoma is so dangerous, physicians have developed an "ABCDE" rule for recognizing the difference between normal moles and unusual or potentially cancerous growths.

A is for Asymmetry – Whereas normal moles are usually symmetrical, atypical moles are asymmetrical. Imagine splitting the mole into two halves. If the two halves are roughly equal in size and shape, then the mole is probably symmetrical and therefore normal.

B is for Border – Cancerous moles often have irregular borders. Be suspicious of any mole that has erratic notches or an uneven and indistinct border.

C is for Color – Most moles have one consistent color. A mole with a variation in shading or coloring should be thoroughly examined by a doctor.

D is for Diameter – Most non-cancerous moles do not exceed 6 millimeters in diameter. Moles that are larger than the head of a pencil eraser should cause some concern.

E is for Elevation – Moles that are elevated from the skin sometimes be cancerous. This is, however, not always the case. Many individuals have moles that are raised but completely harmless. However, if you are concerned about a particular mole, you should have it checked out by a doctor.

While these guidelines are not certain ways to detect cancerous moles, they do provide individuals with a helpful way to self-examine the skin. For all forms of skin cancer, a doctor should examine any abnormality.

Preventing Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is related to sun exposure. While limiting your time spent in direct sunlight can decrease the risk of developing skin cancer, staying out of the sun completely is just not practical. There are, however, a number of things you can do to reduce the damaging effects of the sun's rays.

Studies have shown that reducing the skin's exposure to Ultra Violet (UV) light can decrease the risk of developing Basal Cell and Squamous Cell Carcinomas. UV rays are most intense between the hours of 11am and 3pm. Staying out of the sun for prolonged periods of time during these hours is a good idea. You can also reduce exposure to UV rays by wearing hats and clothing that covers the skin. It is uncertain whether sunscreens protect the skin from non-melanoma skin cancers.

Preventing Melanoma is relatively similar to prevention of the other types of skin cancer. Avoiding long exposures to direct sunlight and wearing protective clothing are recommended. In addition, some studies have suggested that there is a relationship between sunburns and the development of Melanoma. Therefore, while sunscreens may not prevent Basal Cell or Squamous Cell Carcinomas, lathering on the lotion is still a good idea.

As a rule, the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of a sunscreen increases the amount of time that you can spend in the sun before burning. An SPF of 3 means that you can get three times as much exposure to the sun before burning as you would without it. The higher the SPF the higher the protection. But beware. There are two kinds of UV rays, UVA and UVB. The FDA approved the SPF rating for UVB only. Therefore, wearing sunscreen may protect your skin from UVB, but the increased amount of time that you spend in the sun means more UVA exposure, which is not protected by the SPF.t

Are You at High Risk?

Some people have a higher risk of developing skin cancer than others. If you are fair skinned or have light colored eyes, you should be more concerned about limiting your exposure to the sun. Similarly, those who have a tendency to develop freckles on their face or body are at risk.

Individuals who have spent a good amount of time in direct sunlight as a child or throughout their lifetimes are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

People who regularly tan in natural sunlight or use sunlamps/tanning booths should be aware that they are at an increased risk for skin cancer.

Finally, anyone who has a history of melanoma in the family or a high number of irregular looking moles, is at risk for developing Malignant Melanoma.


Understanding the risks and signs of skin cancer is imperative for a generation of individuals who spend so much time in the sun. Knowing good prevention and detection methods can help to eliminate skin cancer in the quickest and easiest way possible. America is not about to give up its attraction to dark skinned, tanned bodies. Not just yet, anyway. Perhaps the reality of skin cancer will eventually change our notions of beauty. Until then, we should at least be wary of the sun's effects on our bodies. 

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