What Can You Do to Protect Yourself from Skin Cancer?


Skin cancer, one of the most prevalent forms of cancer, affects millions of individuals each year around the world. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer globally. The good news, however, is that it is largely preventable. In this article, we offer comprehensive guidance on protecting yourself from skin cancer, covering various strategies, from understanding the different types of skin cancer and their risk factors to practical methods for sun protection and lifestyle adjustments. By implementing the information shared in this guide, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing skin cancer and maintain skin health. Read on.

How Does Skin Cancer Occur?

The sun emits two types of harmful rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays prematurely age the skin and can cause wrinkling, while UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn. Prolonged or intense exposure to both types of UV radiation increases the risk of skin cancer, by damaging the DNA in skin cells. When DNA is damaged, it can cause unregulated growth of skin cells, causing skin cancer.

Types of Skin Cancer and Their Symptoms

The three most common types of skin cancer are:

1. Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

This type of skin cancer is the most prevalent and typically occurs on the areas of the body which are exposed to the sun. BCC tends to grow slowly and is treatable when detected early, and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Signs and symptoms of BCC include:

  • Open Sores or Wounds: Basal cell carcinomas can appear as sores that do not heal, or wounds that bleed, ooze, or crust over.
  • Reddish Patches: Reddish, irritated patches on the skin, sometimes with noticeable blood vessels.
  • Shiny Bumps or Nodules: Translucent, waxy, or pearly bumps that may bleed and develop a crust or form a central depression.
  • Pink Growth: Pink growths with elevated borders and a crusted indentation in the centre.
  • Scar-like Areas: White, yellow, or scar-like areas that are smooth, waxy, or shiny.

2. Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

SCC is the second most common form of skin cancer. It can grow quickly and has a higher chance of spreading to other areas of the body compared to basal cell carcinoma. In addition, while SCC is often found on sun-exposed areas, it can also develop on scars or skin injuries. Signs and symptoms of SCC include:

  • Persistent Scaly Patches: Rough, scaly, or crusty skin patches that may bleed or form a sore.
  • Elevated Growth with a Central Depression: Firm, red nodules with a central depression.
  • Open Sores: Sores that persist, heal and reopen, or show signs of bleeding.
  • Wart-like Growths: Elevated growths resembling warts, sometimes with a crusted surface.
  • Rough or Scaly Skin: A persistent rough patch or scaly area that might itch, hurt, or bleed.

3. Melanoma

Although Melanoma is less common, it is more aggressive than other types of skin cancer and can be potentially life-threatening. It arises from the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) and can develop anywhere on the body, including areas not exposed to the sun. Early detection is critical, as melanoma can spread quickly to other parts of the body. Signs and symptoms of melanoma include:

  • Changes in Moles: Irregular moles that change in size, shape, colour, or texture.
  • New Moles or Spots: New pigmented spots or growths on the skin.
  • Asymmetrical Moles: Moles that have irregular or asymmetrical borders.
  • Varied Colours: Moles or lesions with multiple colours, such as brown, black, red, white, or blue.
  • Large Diameter: Moles or lesions larger than the size of a pencil eraser (6mm).
  • Itching or Bleeding: Moles that itch, bleed, or become painful.

In addition to these primary types of skin cancer, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans, and Kaposi Sarcoma are some less common types of skin cancer, but these too can be equally serious and require prompt medical attention.

Skin Cancer Risk Factors

In addition to overexposure to UV radiation, skin cancer has many other risk factors, including:

  • Low Melanin: People who have low melanin levels (light-coloured skin, eyes, or hair) are more vulnerable to UV radiation and therefore at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
  • History of Sunburns: Individuals who have had several severe sunburns, especially during childhood or adolescence, are at higher risk.
  • Family History: Those with a family history of skin cancer are at a higher risk of developing the condition, especially in cases involving history of melanoma.
  • Moles: Unusual or numerous moles, or large moles, can increase the risk of melanoma.
  • Weak Immune System: People whose immune systems have been weakened due to certain conditions or treatments are more likely to develop skin cancer.
  • Exposure to Radiation: Previous radiation treatment for skin conditions or other medical reasons may contribute to skin cancer risk.
  • Geographic Location: Living closer to the equator or at high altitudes where sunlight is stronger increases exposure to UV radiation.
  • Chemical Exposure: Exposure to certain chemicals, such as arsenic, may heighten the risk of skin cancer.
  • Age: The risk of skin cancer increases as one gets older, particularly for non-melanoma skin cancers.
  • Personal History of Skin Cancer: Having previously had skin cancer increases the likelihood of developing it again.
  • Xeroderma Pigmentosum: A rare, inherited condition causing extreme sensitivity to sunlight and a higher risk of skin cancer.

Skin Cancer Prevention

Protecting yourself from skin cancer involves a combination of skincare and lifestyle adjustments. These include:

Sunscreen Lotion or Cream

While using a sunscreen lotion or cream helps reduce the chances of skin cancer, one must be very careful when choosing a product. The factors to be considered include:

  • SPF (Sun Protection Factor): Select a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. SPF indicates the level of protection against UVB rays, responsible for sunburns and contributing to skin cancer. Higher SPFs offer increased protection, but no sunscreen blocks 100% of UV rays.
  • Spectrum Range: Opt for a sunscreen that protects against UVA as well as UVB rays. While UVA penetrates into the skin, leading to premature ageing and an increased risk of skin cancer, UVB rays cause issues such as sunburn.
  • Water Resistance: Consider water-resistant sunscreen, especially if swimming or sweating. Even when labelled water-resistant, it’s essential to reapply after swimming or excessive sweating for optimal protection.

Application Guidelines

  • Pre-application Preparation: Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside to allow the skin to absorb it effectively.
  • Apply Generously: Be sure to cover all exposed skin, including commonly missed areas such as ears, the back of the neck, tops of feet, and bald spots.
  • Rubbing It In: Thoroughly rub sunscreen into the skin to ensure even coverage and proper adherence.

Reapplication Frequency

  • Regular Reapplication: Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more frequently if swimming, sweating, or towel-drying. Even on cloudy days, UV rays can penetrate clouds and cause skin damage, so consistent reapplication is essential.
  • Post-towel Drying: After towel-drying, it’s crucial to reapply sunscreen, as it may have been removed or diluted by the drying process.

Adhering to these sunscreen application guidelines is essential in providing adequate protection against harmful UV rays, reducing the risk of sunburn, premature ageing, and decreasing the chances of developing skin cancer.

Clothing and Accessories

In addition to using the right sunscreen product, it is also advisable to use the right clothing and accessories that offer protection from UR radiation. Recommendations include:

UPF-rated Clothing

UPF is a rating system used to measure the effectiveness of fabric in blocking ultraviolet radiation. Similar to SPF for sunscreen, UPF indicates how much UV radiation a fabric allows to reach the skin. Clothing with a UPF rating offers enhanced UV protection, reducing the amount of UV radiation reaching the skin.

Hats, Sunglasses, and Other Accessories

  • Wide-brimmed Hats: Wide-brimmed hats offer shade to the face, neck, and ears, areas often exposed to direct sunlight. Choose hats made from UPF-rated fabric or designed specifically for sun protection provide an extra layer of defence against UV radiation.
  • Sunglasses: When stepping out in the sun, always use quality sunglasses with UV protection to shield the eyes from harmful UV rays. Opt for sunglasses that block 100% of UV rays, including both UVA and UVB. Look for labels indicating ‘UV 400’ or ‘100% UV protection’.
  • Other Sun-protective Accessories: Using accessories such as scarves, umbrellas, and sunshades offer additional protection, especially during prolonged sun exposure. These accessories provide portable shade, allowing you to create your own shelter when shade is limited.

Lifestyle Adjustments

  • Avoid Tanning Beds: Tanning beds and artificial UV exposure sources emit concentrated UV radiation, significantly increasing the risk of skin damage, premature ageing, and skin cancer.
  • Regular Skin Self-examinations: Regular self-examinations involve checking your skin for any changes, including new moles, changes in existing moles, or irregularities in skin spots. It should be performed monthly, especially for individuals at a higher risk of skin cancer.
  • Professional Assessment: Regular visits to a dermatologist are also advisable to detect early signs of skin cancer that might be missed during self-examinations.

Diet and Supplements

Incorporating a well-rounded diet that includes skin-supporting nutrients and antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids, along with maintaining proper hydration, plays a vital role in overall skin health, potentially reducing the risk of skin cancer.

  • Foods for Skin Health: Incorporate fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, and other sources of healthy fats and antioxidants into your diet. For instance, leafy greens, berries, citrus fruits, and nuts contain vitamins and minerals that promote skin health.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, these fats help maintain skin moisture and integrity, potentially reducing the risk of skin damage.
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, the unstable molecules produced by external factors such as UV radiation. Foods high in antioxidants include berries, dark chocolate, pecans, artichokes, and colourful fruits and vegetables.
  • Skin Hydration: Adequate hydration is crucial for maintaining skin health, as it helps prevent dry, flaky skin, reducing the risk of skin damage and potentially minimising the impact of UV rays.

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