Protect Your Skin this Summer

When I was a kid, getting sunburned was a summer rite of passage. I had the typical Irish complexion: a vast constellation of freckles and moles. I loved being outdoors, and at least once a summer I would wake up after a day at the pool or the beach to a painful burn.

I did wear sunscreen (most of the time), but as an active kid I rarely stopped to re-apply, or worry about whether it had washed off in the ocean. It would be soothed by aloe vera, or a few days of covering up with a t-shirt.

It was so common I didn’t think much of it. I certainly wasn’t alone.

I can remember my mother sunbathing in our backyard on summer afternoons with an aluminum foil reflector positioned carefully around her – which now seems completely insane. But achieving a ‘perfect’ summer tan was highly desirable, especially for teenaged girls. I had friends who used baby oil as a tan accelerant, in place of the 30 SPF sunscreen I was required to apply. Plenty of girls at our high school frequented tanning beds.

It took a melanoma scare in my early 30s for me to understand just how dangerous all of this was – and to get serious about protecting myself.

We know the major risk factor for skin cancer: exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, or from artificial lamps and tanning beds (which should be avoided at all costs).

So as this summer reaches its peak, and you’re planning your beach getaway or heading out for a relaxing poolside afternoon, make sure you’re doing all you can to protect your own skin from lasting – and potentially dangerous – damage.

Skin cancer facts

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., impacting one in five Americans over the course of a lifetime.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. It often resembles a mole, and sometimes develops from an existing mole that begins to change in shape or appearance. It’s usually caused by intense, occasional UV exposure – the kind that usually leads to sunburn.

Other risk factors for melanoma include a family history and having a large number of sizable moles on the body. Like non-melanoma skin cancer, melanoma can appear on any part of the body, regardless of whether or not you’ve had sunburn there. If undetected it can spread to the lymph nodes and other organs, where it can become fatal.

Women aged 39 and under have a higher probability of developing melanoma than any other cancer except breast cancer.

While fair-skinned Caucasians are at a higher risk, skin cancer does affect people of all races and skin types. (But even some physicians don’t realize this, which is one reason people of color who develop skin cancer tend to be diagnosed at a later stage).

Regular screening

In my early teens, a family doc recommended that I see a dermatologist for annual check-ups. He explained that I had a classic risk profile for skin cancer: fair complexion, multiple freckles and moles, and a history of sunburns.

I hated it at the time. As a teenager, having every inch of your skin examined by a strange doctor – trailed by a group of medical residents – is about as awkward as it gets. But looking back I can say this routine almost certainly saved my life.

I learned to examine my skin and look for the warning signs: if a mole is asymmetrical; if the borders are uneven; if the color is inconsistent; if it’s large in diameter; or if you notice any change in a mole.

I had several moles removed and biopsied over the years: most were benign; others were a non-threatening form of carcinoma. It started to feel like a familiar routine.

At every visit, I was advised to wear the highest possible factor of sunscreen, and limit my outdoor activities during peak sun hours. I did my best to comply, but fell short all too often. I couldn’t imagine giving up the outdoor activities I enjoyed.

Then came the visit in 2005, when a (thankfully sharp-eyed) resident asked me about what appeared to be a new mole on my neck. I couldn’t tell her whether it was new or not. Although I’d been advised to perform monthly self-exams, I obviously wasn’t paying close attention.

This tiny mark I had not even noticed turned out to be a melanoma. Fortunately it was discovered and removed at stage zero, which meant it hadn’t had a chance to spread.

I’m very aware that I was lucky, and I’m determined to stay vigilant. I wear sunscreen on my face every day, no matter the time of year, and in summer I use a high factor SPF on any exposed areas of skin.

I visit the dermatologist at least once a year. I still play sports, still love the beach and the water, but I try to avoid long exposure during peak sun times and I wear SPF/protective swim and sports gear (which is made by lots of companies these days: Atheleta, Coolibar, and Land’s End, to name a few).

What YOU can do

This is the one form of cancer whose symptoms are visible on the outside of your body – if you know what to look for. That’s why I recommend that anyone and everyone talk to their primary care physician about it, and see a dermatologist if you fit any of the risk factors (or just to be sure that you don’t). It’s a modest investment of time and money that could be a life saver.

Regular use of sunscreen (30SPF or higher) is the single best step you can take to protect your skin. Nearly every cosmetic line offers a daily moisturizer with SPF these days, so it’s easy to incorporate into your daily routine.

Limit your sun exposure. Aim to hit the beach in the morning or later afternoon, when the temps are milder and the sun is less direct and intense. Spend some time beneath an umbrella when you’re at the beach or the pool. If you really want a ‘healthy glow,’ treat yourself to a salon spray tan or pick up a bottle of sunless tanner at the pharmacy.

The upside: even if you’re not at high risk for skin cancer, you’ll keep your skin looking young and healthy for years.

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Elisabeth Flynn is Senior Communications Manager at Mazzoni Center.  She has worked at writing and public relations for a variety of academic, nonprofit, and arts organizations.  She lives in Havertown, PA with her partner and their daughter.

 

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