Most people are aware of the importance of protecting their skin from the sun’s harmful rays when heading for the beach or taking part in other outdoor activities in the summer months. But Mercy Health dermatologist Krishna Mutgi, MD, reminds Healthy Living News readers that skin damage from sun exposure is not strictly a summertime phenomenon. Rather, it’s a year-round concern—even in winter and on cloudy or overcast days.
He explains, “In winter, we tend to be more bundled up, so you may not need sunscreen on as many parts of the body as you do in summer. Nonetheless, you still need to protect any exposed areas with SPF 30 or better when spending time outdoors. Also, keep in mind that it’s not sufficient to apply sunscreen once in the morning and then forget about it. Even the best sunscreen needs to be reapplied every three hours.”
Dr. Mutgi notes that sun damage raises several concerns. The one that tends to bother people most is the appearance of dark spots or wrinkles on the skin, especially the face. But these symptoms of chronic sun damage could foreshadow the future development of something much more concerning—skin cancer. “In fact, the risk of all forms of skin cancer is made worse by sun exposure,” he says. “With the non-melanoma skin cancers, which include basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, there is a 100 percent relationship with sun exposure, while melanoma risk is associated with a combination of sun exposure and genetics.”
In addition to measures such as sunscreen use and wearing sun-protective clothing, a key aspect of skin cancer prevention or early detection is getting routine medical checkups that involve examination of the skin. According to Dr. Mutgi, individuals who have a significant amount of sun damage or a history of tanning bed use should see a dermatologist every one to two years, and anyone with a prior skin cancer should be seen every six to 12 months. Those with no significant sun damage should have a primary care physician examine their skin on an annual basis.
Seeing a dermatologist preventatively is advantageous from more than one standpoint. “What a dermatologist can do is two-fold,” says Dr. Mutgi. “One is providing education on the proper use of sunscreen and the types of clothing that provide effective sun protection. The other is performing a baseline exam to determine how much sun damage patients already have, how much sun exposure they’re currently subjected to, and whether anything on their skin looks concerning.”
Dr. Mutgi also advises people to check their own skin routinely for changes or growths that might warrant closer scrutiny. “For example, squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas typically appear as a pimple- or bug-bite-like growth that doesn’t heal. If you notice this on your skin and it persists longer than four to six weeks in the same location, it’s important to get it checked out,” he states.
With respect to melanoma, the best way to assess whether a mole or growth warrants a visit to the dermatologist is to apply the mnemonic “ABCDE.” This acronym stands for:
Asymmetry: If you were to draw a line through the center of the growth, one side would look different from the other side.
Border: The margin of the growth is irregular, jagged, or scalloped rather than circular.
Color: The mole or growth is not uniformly colored throughout or differs in color from the rest of the moles on your body.
Diameter: The growth is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser.
Evolving: Any rapid change in the growth, such as crusting, bleeding, increased pain, or color change.
Perhaps most important, don’t assume skin cancer can’t happen to you. Dr. Mutgi observes that many of his clinic patients hold the mistaken belief that they can’t get skin cancer because they’ve never experienced sunburn. “It’s not just sunburn that increases skin cancer risk. Tanning to any degree is a form of sun damage that can have a cumulative effect and ultimately lead to skin cancer,” he cautions.❦