May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and it's a favorite time of year for Dermatologists. When these few weeks roll around, the public turns their attention to what Derms focus on and teach people about all year: that skin cancer is common and should be taken seriously, but that you have the power to protect your skin and lower your risk.
Read on for a deep dive into what causes skin cancer, who's at the greatest risk, and how you can keep your skin healthy.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. In fact, about one in five Americans will develop it in their lifetime. And it doesn't just affect people with lighter complexions—people of all skin colors can get skin cancer.
The main cause of all skin cancers—including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma—is too much ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun and tanning beds. This UV exposure can damage the genetic material (called DNA) in your skin cells and cause them to grow uncontrollably into cancer.
Risk Factors for Skin Cancer
Some people are more likely to get skin cancer than others. People with light skin, hair, and eyes have the highest risk because they have the least amount of melanin pigment, which protects the skin from UV damage.
People who have more than 50 moles or any atypical moles are over 12 times more likely to develop melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, women are more likely to develop melanoma up until age 49, but from age 50 on, it's more common in men. In people of color, melanoma is more likely to occur in areas that are less pigmented, like the palms, soles of the feet, and nail area.
How to Prevent Skin Cancer: 5 Tips from a Dermatologist
When it comes to skin cancer, prevention is key. Fortunately, you can significantly lower your risk of skin cancer without being stuck indoors all year round. By incorporating these tips into your daily life, you can enjoy some outdoor sunshine while still protecting your skin from UV damage.
1. Practice Sun Safety
The best way to protect your skin is to wear sunscreen every day. Even if you're not in the sun for long periods of time, UV rays can get through clouds, and some can even get through glass. Using sunscreen like EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 can lower your risk of skin cancer and other signs of sun damage, like wrinkles and blotchy skin. If you're going to be outside during peak sun hours, find shade as much as possible. Wearing hats and sun-protective clothing is another way to layer up your protection against UV rays.
2. Know Your Risk Factors
Anyone can get skin cancer, but some people are at higher risk. Factors that can increase your risk include having a lighter complexion, a family history of melanoma, many childhood sunburns in your past, or more than 50 moles. If you're at higher risk, it's especially important to protect your skin from the sun and avoid getting sunburns.
3. Avoid Indoor Tanning
Tanning increases your risk of all skin cancers. In fact, if you tan before age 20, your chance of developing melanoma goes up by almost 50 percent, and your risk increases each time you tan. Tanning also makes your skin age more quickly. This means you're more likely to get wrinkles, dark spots, and saggy or leathery skin at a younger age. Here's the bottom line: If you use a tanning bed, stop. If you've never used one, don't start—not even once. It's just not worth it.
4. Get to Know Your Skin
Everyone has different spots on their skin, like freckles, moles, or skin tags. Most of these are completely normal and nothing to worry about. If you develop a new spot or notice that an existing spot is changing, however, it may be a sign of something more serious. Becoming familiar with your skin can make it easier to identify when things change and when you need to consider a possible skin cancer. The easiest way to do this is by regularly checking your skin in the mirror.
5. Visit Your Derm
Your Derm is your skin's best friend. They're here to help you keep your skin healthy and vibrant. Seeing your Derm annually for a skin check is a great way to catch skin cancer when it's still small and easily treated. It's also important to trust your gut. If you have a spot that you're worried about—even if it seems small or insignificant—it's always best to ask your Derm to check it out.
Skin cancer is common, but that doesn't mean it has to affect you. The best way to keep your skin healthy, vibrant, and cancer-free is to protect it from the sun's damaging UV rays every day.