Summer brings longer days and more time spent outside. It’s also the season to be even more aware and vigilant about caring for our skin, especially since skin cancer affects one in five Americans and is the most common of all cancers.†  Since the best defense is early detection, here’s what you should know:

Melanoma, a cancer of the pigment cells, is the most life-threatening form of skin cancer.  If caught early and surgically removed, the cure rate approaches 100%, but if not, melanoma has the potential to spread lethally throughout the body.  You can spot several of the early warning signs, including the ABCDEs:  Asymmetry, irregular Border, multiple Colors, Diameter greater than 6mm, and Evolving (the spot changes).  In addition, any spot that does not fit with others may be suspect as well. Examining your skin monthly will help you familiarize yourself with your existing moles and better detect any new or changing spots.

Non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.  Basal cell carcinoma can appear as a pink or red patch, pink growth, shiny bumps, open sores or a scar-like area.  Squamous cell carcinoma may be a scaly red patch, raised growth with a central depression or warty growth.  Both of these cancers may bleed and will not heal unless treated.  If neglected, these tumors enlarge and can be locally destructive.  Some rare aggressive forms have the potential to spread to other parts of the body.

While treatment of primary melanoma (before the cancer has spread) is surgical removal, treatments for the non-melanoma skin cancers include topical creams, surgical excision, surgical destruction, freezing, radiation, photodynamic therapy, and an oral medication for rare locally invasive or metastatic basal cell carcinoma.  When caught early, most non-melanoma skin cancers can be easily treated in your dermatologist’s office.

Although early detection is the best way to ensure that skin cancer is easily treated, the best way to prevent skin cancer is to use sun protection in the form of clothing, hats and of course sunscreen. The FDA has recently changed the way manufacturers can label their products which should simplify things for the consumer. Products that are labeled Broad Spectrum will block both UVA and UVB which are the most significant portions of the sun’s rays. Using product with SPF of at least 30 is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. If you are using the product in the water or while sweating, then you should choose those labeled Water Resistant 80 minutes. Keep in mind that every sunscreen will need to be reapplied every two hours and additionally after these activities.

Most people do not use enough of the product and therefore are not getting its full effect. Each application for an adult should be about 1 oz or the amount to fill a shot glass (about half a bathroom paper cup). And it’s best to apply it before you get dressed so that the areas near clothing have sufficient coverage. This will also allow for the product to be absorbed by the skin, which is necessary for it to work properly. Patients often ask about the safety and effectiveness of spray sunscreen. If you’re alone and it’s the only way to apply sunscreen on your back then go ahead, but use the spray in a well-ventilated outdoor space. There is no evidence that sunscreens pose any hazard when applied to the skin, but breathing them in an aerosolized form has not been studied.

The benefits of using sun protection in a daily moisturizer go beyond skin cancer prevention. Photoaging, or the brawny uneven tone and texture that occurs with long term sun exposure, will be prevented and you will maintain a more youthful appearance in years to come.

In summary, our advice for anti-aging as well as skin cancer prevention and detection is to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays, examine your skin monthly and consult a dermatologist promptly for any new, changing or non-healing lesions that you may notice.

† sources: The American Cancer Society, The Skin Cancer Foundation

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Alison LIndsay-Beltzer, M.D and Dorian Gravenese, M.D. are dermatologists at Scarsdale Medical Group and assistant attending dermatologists at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center. They are both members of the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Scarsdale Medical Group; 914-723-8100.