Five ways to avoid sun damage and skin cancer

The summer is a busy time filled with outdoor activities and long periods of sun exposure.

Having a prevention plan is critical to avoiding sun-damaged skin and, more importantly, skin cancer, which remains the most prevalent type of cancer in the United States.

Follow these steps to avoid the damaging effects of the sun, as well as skin cancer.

1. Be aware

While the sun is the source of various health benefits, chronic sun exposure can be harmful to your skin in many ways. Most commonly, sun-damaged skin ages a lot faster than normal — leading to loss of skin elasticity, easy bruising and cosmetically bothersome sun spots. Moreover, the dangerous effects of the sun are typically a product of chronic and cumulative sun exposure. Therefore, being mindful of your sun-protective habits throughout the year and earlier in life can mitigate the long-term damaging consequences of the sun.

2. Protect yourself

The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Refrain from doing outdoor activity during those times. When going outside, use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and remember to reapply as often as every two hours. Protective clothing, such as broad-brimmed hats and UPF shirts/shorts, are an excellent form of sun protection, especially for children.

In all circumstances, avoid the use of tanning beds as they expose one to higher than normal amounts of harmful UV-radiation.

3. Get educated

You know your body the best and, therefore, it’s important to keep an eye on your skin for any spots or growths that are new, changing, growing or not healing. With that in mind, examine your skin at least once a month. For areas that are hard to see, use a hand-held mirror or ask your partner to examine these areas for you. The sooner you have any problematic lesions addressed, the sooner you can either be reassured or be treated appropriately.

4. Know the difference

If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, more often than not it will be of one of two types — basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. Based on their size and location, they can be treated and cured in various ways, including topical chemotherapy, lesional destruction and specialized surgery.

Melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer, but is often serious if not detected and treated early — accounting for the most skin cancer-related deaths in the US. With that in mind, keep these detection-based criteria (ABCDE) in mind when evaluating any moles on your body:

  • Asymmetry: Moles are generally symmetrical. If you find one that looks asymmetrical, notify your dermatologist.
  • Border: Regular moles usually have distinct, smooth borders while melanomas have scalloped edges and uneven borders.
  • Color: Moles are commonly brown or black. Therefore, be weary of any moles that have an uneven distribution of such common colors or those that are developing multiple colors, including shades of red, blue and white.
  • Diameter: Melanomas are at least the size of a pencil eraser or greater than 6 millimeters.
  • Evolution: Active evolution of any mole in terms of the aforementioned features as well as any mole that is not healing or symptomatic is critical to the diagnosis of melanoma.

5. Get checked!

If you’ve spent large amounts of time in the sun over the years, have many moles or are noting changes in your skin, be proactive about visiting a dermatologist. Individuals who develop skin cancer are at much higher risk than the general population of developing subsequent skin cancers. With that in mind, sun protection and routine skin checks will prevent unnecessary surgery and potentially life-threatening cancers. 

Allireza Alloo, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. He is also the director of the Inpatient Consultation Service at Northwell Health.

Northwell has a numerous dermatologists specializing in a variety of conditions.