An $8 bottle of Coppertone will definitely help save your skin from a painful sunburn, but it also might save your life.
The American Cancer Society says skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. The organization estimates 76,380 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year, potentially fatal and the most aggressive type of skin cancer that accounts for only 1 percent of all skin cancer cases—and an estimated 10,130 will lose their lives to the disease, 440 in Nevada alone.
“Other skin cancers can only affect adults and older patients,” says Dr. Paul Michael, a medical oncologist who has worked with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada for over 30 years. “But melanoma can strike at even a young age, and it has the greatest potential to spread throughout the body.”
With these unsettling facts and figures in mind, we asked Michael for some sun- and skin cancer-protection advice.
Cover up if you can. “Clothing is always better than sunblock. Sunblock is only indicated when you cannot cover up or be in the shade … You go to Wet ‘n’ Wild, a baseball game, you’re outside—you sit under an umbrella, you sit in the shade.”
Use sunblock with 30 to 50 SPF (sun protection factors). “What [SPF is] measuring is how long will you burn, so if you use SPF 30 you can technically be in the sun 30 times longer than naked skin without burning. … Above 50, I think, is just an invalid measurement.”
Use sunblock that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. “The kind that protect both A and B, they have that titanium oxide … so it kind of goes on greasy. It’s not the kind of sunblock that can be well-absorbed, and a lot of people don’t like to use those kinds of sunblock.”
“UVB is the type of radiation that goes [in] superficially, and that’s the one that makes you burn [and suntan]. … UVA is the one that goes deeper into the skin, but is also cancer causing … And I think people think only B is the type that causes cancer. Both types cause cancer.”
Taking the kids out? Avoid sunblock that contains parabens (preservatives commonly found in cosmetics). “In some cases there is some worry about [parabens] being carcinogens … The risk of getting skin cancer is much greater than the risk of getting cancer from the sunblock itself, but if you’re going to go out regularly with the kids, try to use the non-paraben [sunblock].”
Reapply! “You have to reapply [sunblock] every two hours, that’s what most people don’t do. They’ll put it on, and they’ll forget to reapply it in two hours.”
In the sun often? Consider annual check-ups with a dermatologist. “If you regularly are in the sun—you regularly golf, you spend time in your yard, you’re outside in Nevada on a frequent basis—you need to get a skin-doctor appointment at least once a year, and I recommend you start that in your thirties … and if not a skin doctor, you can always see a primary doctor, too.”
Have moles? Look for changes in …
Color: “Most of the dangerous skin cancers that we’re talking about, melanoma, they start as a mole. If you have a change in the color of a mole—it goes from a brown to a black—or also if the color of the mole changes to two colors, like it’s blue/red or red/black, that’s a worrisome change.”
Size: “You’re also looking for a change in the size. Your mole is brown, but instead of the size of a BB [bullet] your mole is the size of a quarter. It suddenly got big—that’s a worry.”
Shape: “We always try to teach patients to look for a change in the shape—[if] your mole on your arm has always been a nice round [shape] like an eraser, and now your mole looks like a star or a triangle [and/or] its edges are irregular.”
Don’t wait for pain to do something. “Skin cancer is silent, so you can’t expect there to be pain, discomfort, things like that. You don’t want to wait for that.”
“You do worry about a skin spot that bleeds, so if you have blood on your sheets, blood on your clothing, and there’s a little sore, that’s worrisome. You need to get that checked out.”