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How to Prevent Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer, and arguably the most preventable. Most cases are directly tied to sun exposure, so how you choose to protect your skin from the rays will have an enormous impact on your chances of developing basal cell, squamous cell, or melanoma.
As with other cancers, early detection is crucial, which means you need to know what skin changes to watch for. However, it’s equally vital that you take steps to reduce your skin cancer risk now, with a few extra additions to your daily routine.
1. Find a Dermatologist
Even if you have complete trust and confidence in your family physician, it is always a good idea to have suspicious changes checked out by a dermatologist. Research shows that dermatologists are more likely to spot melanoma in its early stages, before it becomes a bigger, life-threatening problem.
Their expertise helps them find small tumors that escape the attention of other doctors, and as they will have seen such a variety of skin issues, dermatologists will be less inclined to assume something is benign, or misdiagnose the issue.
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2. Avoid Burning at All Costs
UVB rays are responsible for sunburn, but the burn suggests that you’ve also soaked up a lot of UVA radiation – and that’s even more frightening. Those deeply-penetrating UVA rays take their toll on your system: even one sunburn raises your chances of developing melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), and those who burn more than five times will double their lifetime risk. It can be difficult to tell how red you’re getting in the bright sunlight, so step inside or under shade periodically in order to better examine the hue of your skin.
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3. Look Beyond the SPF
For years, sunscreen with SPF 30 and UVB coverage was touted as the most appropriate – anything higher wouldn’t fare any better, anyway. Though there’s some truth to this (most doctors says the protection rises very minimally, if at all, in higher SPFs), it’s only part of the story.
UVB rays are harmful, but so are UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply and can cause dangerous changes in your skin cells. Unfortunately, there are no laws requiring sunscreen brands to advertise their degree of UVA protection, so your best bet is to use a broad-spectrum lotion containing ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and avobenzone.
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4. Seek Shade in Midday
Taking in a bit of sun is fine (with the proper protection, of course), but you need to choose your time wisely. The sun is at its strongest between 10 am and 4 pm in North America, when it’s best to stay under the cover of an umbrella, leafy tree, or pavilion roof. Even on cloudy days when your risk of burning is lower, UV rays will continue to reach you and cause damage to your skin. It’s important to plan activities around this “danger zone,” staying under cover until the sun begins to fall in the sky, and be sure to apply your sunscreen 20 minutes before you do step into the light.
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5. Wear the Right Clothing
Experts insist that sunscreen simply isn’t enough to ward off cancer-causing rays, and you stand a much better chance of escaping serious skin damage when you add a full layer of protective clothing. Dark colors and tight weaves or knits provide better protection, but specially-made photoprotective clothing is the very best choice.
If you don’t want to invest in an entire sun-specific wardrobe, choose clothing made out of synthetic fibers, like polyester, Lycra and nylon, which reflect UV light better than natural fibers like cotton. Be sure that any stretchy garments fit you properly – over-stretching will lower their UV protection – and don’t forget about your face and eyes: a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses will complete your sun-safe outfit.
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6. Be Wary of Sun-Sensitizing Medication
Some pharmaceuticals can make your skin more sensitive to UV light, which means you could sustain a good deal of skin damage after just a short while in the sun. Antifungal creams, coal tar (used to treat eczema and psoriasis), many antibiotics, and certain antidepressants are all photosensitive drugs, which means they contain chemicals that react with sunlight to produce damaging reactions over the surface of the skin.
Some medications will leave you very prone to sunburn, while others will spark an allergic response (typically in the form of a rash or hives). In any case, you must be diligent with your sun protection to avoid raising your risk of skin damage and cancer.
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7. Avoid Tanning Beds
The dangers of the sun are widely known, but it should come as no surprise that tanning beds carry some hazards of their own. The light used in tanning beds is packed with UV rays – after all, these are what cause your skin to tan! In fact, people who visit tanning salons are nearly twice as likely to develop basal cell skin cancer, and about 2.5 times as likely to contract squamous cell skin cancer. Unfortunately, the effects last long after your final artificial tan, too: research suggests that using tanning beds before the age of 35 will certainly increase your chances of melanoma down the road.
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8. Drink Coffee
It may sound strange, but a few cups of coffee could significantly reduce your risk of certain skin cancers. For each daily cup of coffee you drink, you can also enjoy a 5% drop in your risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer down the road. Although experts aren’t quite sure what it is about coffee, some suspect that the natural antioxidants are responsible for protecting the skin, while others point to the caffeine (recent studies haven’t found the same drastic results in decaf drinkers). However, coffee is certainly no substitute for sunscreen.
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9. Examine Yourself Monthly
Paying close attention to your own body is the first step to better health, especially when it comes to your skin. Get in the habit of checking your body from head to toe at least once every month: look for new moles, changes to your existing moles, and patches of unusual color or texture. Studies suggest that thousands of melanoma cases could be found and treated before becoming fatal if more people took the time to perform monthly self-checks. Since cancerous growths can hide in places you wouldn’t think to look, it can be very helpful to have a partner help look for suspicious changes.
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10. See Your Doctor Yearly
Visits to dermatologists or family doctors are too often reserved for illness or painful emergencies. Instead of waiting for problems to pop up, arrange to see your doctor every year so they can take a close look at your skin and check your moles against their records. Point out any changes you’ve seen yourself, and if your doctor isn’t concerned about these spots, ask why – the better you know what to look for and which growths are likely nothing to worry about, the better you’ll be able to spot and act on dangerous skin changes in the future.
It’s impossible to know for sure who will contract this dangerous disease, but there are some skin cancer screening measures that can uncover an issue before you show any visible signs of a problem. Ask your doctor whether your specific risk factors, history of sun exposure, and current skin health makes you a good candidate for cancer screening. Since there are some risks involved in arbitrary screening, your doctor will want to make sure your particular case warrants a deeper look at this moment.