As people spend more time outdoors this summer, health experts are offering tips on how to prevent skin cancer.
Dr. Maria LaPlante, a family doctor in Front Royal with a special interest in dermatology, estimates she treated more than 300 cases of skin cancer last year through Valley Health Warren Memorial Hospital Family Medicine, 67 Riverton Commons Plaza.
“Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and we know it can be prevented,” she said.
There’s an assumption that people who burn have a higher risk of developing skin cancer, but LaPlante said all ages and all skin types are at risk.
“Sun protection is really important for everyone,” she said.
The key to preventing skin cancer is protecting yourself against ultraviolet light, said Skyler Sharp, a family nurse practitioner at Valley Health Shenandoah Memorial Hospital Family Medicine, 5173 Main St., Mount Jackson.
Covering up with a wide-brimmed hat and lightweight clothing, especially ones with sun protection factor (SPF) ratings, will go a long way to helping prevent skin damage from the sun, she said.
Additionally, people should wear sunglasses that protect the eyes from UVA and UVB rays.
UVA and UVB rays can damage skin, so Sharp said it’s important to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both types of rays and apply sunscreen to any exposed areas, including ears, neck, the backs of hands and the top of feet.
LaPlante recommends an SPF of 30 or higher.
Sunscreen needs to be applied evenly to be effective, she said, but people often apply sunscreen in a thinner layer than SPF test studies require. That can leave people with a lower SPF than they think they’re getting. The higher the SPF they use, the better chance they will have of protecting their skin.
It’s also important to reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more often if swimming or exercising, because it washes away and wears off throughout the day.
Between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun is strongest, she recommended moving into the shade, if possible, or being even more diligent about wearing high-SPF sunscreen.
Though burning does damage skin, LaPlante said sun damage accumulates over a lifetime.
Every time you’re outside in the sun, you get damage to your skin, she said. “It doesn’t even require a sunburn.”
Children are especially vulnerable to skin damage from the sun, LaPlante said. By the time most are 18, they will have acquired 50 percent of their skin damage for life, she said.
Sharp also discourages tanning, whether outside or in a tanning bed, both of which she said can lead to sun damage and premature aging of the skin.
People can reduce their chances of developing skin cancer by starting a sunscreen routine right away.
“The most effective [sunscreen],” Sharp said, “is the one that they actually use.”
While prevalent around the area, skin cancer is largely treatable, Sharp said.
Start by looking for abnormalities on your skin, such as bumps, moles, scaly skin or marks that have changed in color, size or texture.
“Getting to know your skin early is always important,” she said.
Have a primary provider check any bumps or moles that have uneven edges, are asymmetrical or bleed when scratched.
Though telehealth options are more available these days, Sharp said an in-person visit will be more comprehensive for identifying skin cancer.
“I would recommend going in for a full checkout,” she said.
There are four types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma and the rarest but most aggressive: Merkel cell carcinoma.
Basal cell carcinoma presents as a pink bump on the skin, a sore or a little ulcer that keeps growing in size over time, LaPlante said. It’s very slow-growing and typically non-aggressive, but it may bleed, she said.
Squamous cell carcinoma shows up as hard, pink, scaly and tender and keeps getting bigger, she said.
Melanoma patients should start with the “ABCDE” method of identification, she said: asymmetry, (inconsistent) borders, color differences or changing colors, diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser) and evolution.
“Those signs don’t mean a specific skin spot is melanoma,” she said. But it should be an indicator to make a doctor’s appointment.
Merkel cell carcinoma is fast-growing but rare, the Mayo Clinic says at its website, mayoclinic.org.
“It appears as a painless, flesh-colored or bluish-red nodule growing on your skin ... that usually appears as a flesh-colored or bluish-red nodule, often on your face, head or neck,” the site says.
Though varying in appearance, all four skin cancer types are about skin damage from the sun and UV damage, Sharp said.
“It’s kind of where it happens in the skin and the damage it does to those layers,” she explained.
Treatments range from topical creams to surgery, based on how advanced the cancer is, LaPlante said.
“This is where early detection is really key,” she said. “If we catch it early, then they can be treated very easily.”