How to reduce your risk for skin cancer

Noticing abnormal lesions or spots on your skin mean that it's time to visit a skin specialist, Benson says. (Photo by Katie Jacewicz)

Noticing abnormal lesions or spots on your skin mean that it's time to visit a skin specialist, Benson says. (Photo by Katie Jacewicz)

When preparing to go outdoors, be aware that the first step in getting a tan is DNA damage. That’s right—you cannot get a tan without first damaging your DNA. So how do we enjoy outdoor activities while protecting our DNA? The answer includes shade, moderate sun exposure, protective clothing and hats and sunscreen. 

Dermatologists are often asked, “What is the best sunscreen?” My response is always the same—the one that you will use. Any sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or more will provide adequate protection from shortwave UV rays (UVB), which cause most skin cancers, and partial protection from long-wave UV rays (UVA).

Carcinogenic UVA wavelengths, which can penetrate through clouds and window glass, are the primary cause of thin, wrinkled skin. These dangerous UVA rays are also used in tanning beds. The protective sunscreens that are the most effective for both types of UV wavelengths are the “physical blocks,” which are much like rubbing shade on your skin.

Nanotechnology has taken the white paste used by lifeguards (zinc oxide) and the pigment found in white paint (titanium dioxide), and made these particles so incredibly tiny that they are virtually invisible; yet they still deflect the harmful UV waves as if the skin were painted white.

Since broad spectrum physical blocks are less apt to wear off as the hours wear on, sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are highly recommended. Options include not only traditional creams and lotions, but also touch-less, greaseless sprays and dry applications such as mineral makeup, which are easy to use and don’t run or feel tacky. Whatever option you choose, what matters most is that you apply sunscreen before going outdoors.

The responsibility for preventing DNA damage (which can lead to most skin cancers, including the deadliest form, melanoma) rests upon each individual by simply limiting exposure to natural UV radiation from sunlight and avoiding artificial UV radiation from tanning beds. Additionally, if we pay attention to our skin for mole changes or new growths, we can decrease our risk with early detection. It is as easy as ABC.

A stands for asymmetry, an irregularity in shape.
B stands for border, denoting an uneven or fuzzy border.
C stands for color, meaning multiple shades of brown, red and especially black.
D stands for diameter, which is usually larger than a pencil eraser.
E stands for evolving, in appearance and/or irritability.

If you are regularly outdoors, frequent tanning beds or have numerous moles, a periodic spot check by a skin specialist is recommended. If you notice any lesion which fits the “ABCDE” guidelines, seek a skin specialist immediately. Early detection and treatment can literally make the difference between life and death. 

About this Angie's List Expert: For more than 35 years, board certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Robert W. Benson, M.D. has been dedicated to providing the latest proven skin treatments and techniques in the United States and abroad. Dr. Benson continues to enjoy the challenges of all facets of dermatology, including general dermatological and skin cancer surgery.

As of June 13, 2013, this service provider was highly rated on Angie's List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check Angie's List for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie's List.

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