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Get Smart About the Sun

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You work out, skip the foam on your latte, and snack on veggies. But if you're like two-thirds of us, you skip the sunscreen every day, even though it's the simplest way to prevent skin cancer. It's not too late to start! Skin cancer is very preventable, and you can lower your chances right now with our easy three-step guide.

Step 1: Face the Facts About Skin Cancer

There are plenty of myths about skin cancer and sun protection -- and we love it when you write and e-mail us your questions. Here, the answers to all those toughies. (And keep 'em coming!)

"Most sun damage is done when we're kids, right?"

Not necessarily. That information was based on a misinterpreted study from the '80s. We actually get less than 25 percent of our total sun exposure by age 18, according to new research. Each 20-year period after that averages another 25 percent -- so adopting new, healthy skin habits now can literally save your life.

"Isn't indoor tanning safer than baking in the sun?"

No! That misconception lures more than a million people -- 71 percent of them women under 30 -- to tanning salons every day. High-pressure bulbs in tanning beds emit as much as 12 times the UVA the sun does, increasing your risk of melanoma by 75 percent if you started indoor tanning before age 35. The only safe tan comes from a bottle. Tell that to your bronze-seeking girlfriends; scarily, 38 percent say they endure the discomfort of a sunburn to get color, according to a survey by Kelton Research and Jergens.

"Do I really need to wear sunscreen 365 days a year?"

Yep. Slather it on every inch of exposed skin every single day. For the record, SPF foundation doesn't count (you don't use enough of it for protection), so layer it on top of sunscreen. Heading to the beach? Apply SPF from head to toe before suiting up (swimsuits can shift, revealing unprotected skin). Then reapply every 80 minutes or immediately after swimming, says Robert A. Weiss, MD, president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.

"What should I look for in a sunscreen?"

First scan the label for the words "broad spectrum" and check the ingredient list for sun blockers zinc oxide and titanium dioxide -- all indications that your formula shields you from UVA and UVB, the two types of skin cancer-causing rays. The SPF level (shoot for at least 30) measures a product's ability to protect only against UVB, which leads to burns. But you need a sunscreen that also filters UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into skin, resulting in wrinkles and age spots.

 
"I have a lot of moles. Am I more at risk?"

Normal moles (small brown spots or growths) are generally benign -- but having more than 50 does up your risk for melanoma. Atypical ones increase your chances for skin cancer too. Every month, look for new spots and moles that have changed in shape, size, or color, says Dr. Weiss. (A good way to remember: Do it with your breast self-exam.) Go into a well-lit area like a bathroom and give the front of your body a thorough once-over. Feel your skin as you examine it; suspicious spots can be flesh-toned but scaly. Next, use a full-length mirror to scan your back side. Spend extra time on your scalp (part your hair to get a good view), neck, and shoulders, and don't forget your underarms, palms and soles, and the insides of your fingers and toes. Finally, use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see areas. In rare cases, melanoma can be genetic and unrelated to UV exposure.

 
"How will I know if a spot is suspicious?"

Consult our photo guide (above). And remember these ABCDE signs of skin cancer:

A = asymmetrical shape
B = border; jagged or blurry edges are suspect
C = color; two or more shades within a mole is bad news
D = diameter; moles greater than one-quarter inch (about the size of a pencil eraser) may indicate a problem
E = evolving; any mole that changes size, shape, or color is suspicious.

Find any of these? See a dermatologist (find one at aad.org) right away.

 
"I've never had a skin check; what should I expect?"

Your appointment with your derm should take no more than 15 minutes. After discussing your family and sun history, the doctor will use a magnifying lens to examine your entire body. (You can remove all your clothes or leave on your bra and underwear.) If she sees something suspicious, she'll probably do one of two things: take a photo of the lesion and measure it (both allow her to keep track of its growth) or biopsy it, removing all or part of the spot, and send it to a lab for analysis. (You'll get results in a week or two.)

Consistency is key to staying healthy, so check your own skin each month -- and don't forget to book your doc appointment for the next year. Put an electronic reminder in your PDA, or schedule it for around the same time as your annual ob-gyn exam.

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