Though COVID-19 continues to dominate the health-related headlines, it’s important to keep in mind that many other aspects of health still demand our attention. Among them is protecting our skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays when we spend time outdoors.
Erin Heuring, MD, of Mercy Health Dermatology, explains that in addition to increasing the risk for most forms of skin cancer, sun damage is the number-one cause of photoaging, or premature aging of the skin due to cumulative UV exposure.
She also warns that there’s no such thing as a safe suntan. “Any change in skin color due to sun exposure—whether it’s a suntan or sunburn—indicates DNA damage to the skin, which increases the risk of photoaging and skin cancer. And keep in mind that tanning beds are not a safer alternative to natural sunlight exposure,” she says.
Sunscreen is, of course, a vital tool for protecting the skin against sun damage. Dr. Heuring recommends using a broad-spectrum product (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, of 30 or higher. Sunscreen should also be reapplied every two hours as well as after perspiring heavily and wiping the skin or after swimming and toweling dry. “The amount of sunscreen you apply should be approximately enough to fill a shot glass, which is sufficient to cover the average person’s body,” she says.
Dr. Heuring prefers mineral-based sunscreens over chemical-based ones, so look for products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Mineral-based sunscreens are “physical sunscreens” that form a protective barrier on the surface of the skin that reflects away harmful UV rays.
However, sunscreen use is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to sun protection. Dr. Heuring also advises limiting sun exposure by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants as well as seeking shade whenever possible. “Also, while the risk of damaging sun exposure is greatest in summertime, especially between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. when UV levels are at their highest, don’t assume you’re safe outside because it’s not a bright, sunny summer day. UV rays penetrate clouds and are a concern year-round,” she says.
In addition to recommending steps to limit sun exposure, Dr. Heuring urges HLN readers to monitor themselves routinely for any potential signs of skin cancer, including melanoma and non-melanoma cancers.
She explains that melanoma can either occur “out of the blue,” typically as a dark or brown spot, or arise from an existing mole. When checking for warning signs of melanoma, it helps to know your ABCDEs. This acronym stands for:
Asymmetry—If you draw a line through the middle of the mole, the two sides don’t match.
Border—The border of the growth is jagged or meandering rather than smooth.
Color—More than one color is present in the growth.
Diameter—Any growth the approximate size of a pencil eraser or larger warrants examination.
Evolving—The growth is changing over time (the most important characteristic).
“It’s important to monitor your moles as well as perform a full-body skin check on a monthly basis to identify any new growths,” Dr. Heuring states. “If you have difficulty seeing certain parts of your body, you can find techniques online for observing hard-to-reach areas using a hand mirror.”
Some potential signs of non-melanoma cancers (i.e., basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas) to watch for include a sore that won’t heal, a pimple-like growth that doesn’t go away, or a scar-like growth that appears without injury or trauma and doesn’t go away. “Also, be aware that burn scars and severe scars are high-risk areas for developing skin cancer,” Dr. Heuring adds.
As an additional safeguard against skin cancer, it’s a good idea to see a dermatologist for a full-body exam at least once if you haven’t already. After that baseline visit, the doctor can determine whether regular follow-up is appropriate based on your risk factors, for example if you have a personal or family history of skin cancer or you’re over the age of 50.
For more information or to schedule an appointment with a Mercy Health dermatologist, visit mercy.com.