Skin Cancer PreventionSkin Cancer Prevention

Summer sun is around the corner, and May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common cancer, and people over 50 are most likely to develop it. Regular screenings and daily preventive measures can cut your risk, and now is the perfect time to step up your sun-protection game.

If you had childhood sunburns and assume prevention is pointless now, think again. The idea that most sun damage occurs before age 18 has been proven false, and there are steps you take now to improve your health. And if you think you’re immune or low-risk because you have dark skin, doctors say otherwise. People with lighter skin are at higher risk, but people of all races and skin tones get skin cancer, which means everyone should be vigilant about sun protection and screenings.

Screen time for skin cancer prevention

Experts recommend that you check your skin every 1 to 3 months, and some American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) partners offer free skin cancer screenings across the country in May. Whether you get a free screening, go to your doctor, or check yourself, the things to look for are:

  • Red scaly patches that could be precancerous growths called actinic keratoses
  • Flesh-colored bumps that may be basal cell carcinoma
  • Red, scaly bumps or sores that don’t heal, which may indicate squamous cell cancer

Most bumps and moles aren’t cancerous, but your doctor should check any suspicious spots. These lesions are usually easy to treat or remove at the early stage. You can find pictures here.

Screenings for the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma, follow the “ABCDE rule.” See your doctor if you have a mole or new growth that has:

  • Asymmetrical shape
  • A Border with a ragged or notched edge
  • Colors that include more than one shade of brown or black, or red, white, or blue pigment
  • A Diameter bigger than a pencil eraser
  • Evolved in shape, size, color, or texture (taking mole selfies is an easy way to keep track)

Melanoma kills about 10,000 Americans a year, but with early detection and proper treatment, it is nearly 100% curable, according to the AAD.

The best daily skin protection practices

Whether or not you’ve ever had skin cancer, these are the daily steps dermatologists recommend for prevention:

  • Stay out of the sun during prime UV time, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for most of North America
  • Slather on SPF 15 or higher sunscreen and reapply it every 2 hours while you’re outdoors (more often if you’re swimming or sweating). Protect your lips, and if you have thinning hair, scars on your scalp, or are bald, protect your “sun roof” with sunscreen or a hat.
  • Dress for healthy skin. Long-sleeved shirts and pants work for average days. For outdoor adventures, clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 40 or better provides “excellent UV protection,” according to the American Melanoma Foundation.
  • Invest in UVA/UVB blocking sunglasses. The CDC recommends wraparound styles for glare protection.
  • Avoid stealth sun exposure. Driving, working indoors by a sunny window, and going outside on cloudy days expose you to UV rays. Put your sunscreen habit on autopilot and you’ll always be protected.
  • Skip the tanning bed. If you must have a golden glow, use self-tanner or get a spray tan. Then protect your newly bronzed skin with plenty of sunscreen.

Checking for lesions may seem like looking for trouble, but a little care now can save you lots of trouble later. And if you skip sunscreen because of the oily feel, check out the next-generation products that are as light as regular lotion or even dry to a powder finish. Find a skin protection routine that works for you so you can enjoy the outdoors now without paying for it later.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

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