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5 Tips for Preventing (And Detecting!) Skin Cancer This Summer

Photo credit: iStock/pixdeluxe

Photo credit: iStock/pixdeluxe

With summer in full gear and Philadelphians flocking to the Shore, it’s never been more important to get smart about sun protection and skin cancer. As the most common type of cancer —more than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated in the U.S. each year — it’s a formidable threat to those who spend a significant amount of time outdoors, like so many of us do when warm weather sets in. 

The good news, however, is that it’s generally preventable—and even treatable when caught early. So, to ensure you’re celebrating the season safely, we chatted with a Penn Medicine melanoma expert (the most serious type of skin cancer) and rounded up the best ways to reduce your risks. Here are five essential tips.

1. Wear sunscreen. It’s an obvious measure, we know, but nothing beats thorough, daily sunscreen application (a quick slather won’t cut it). Lynn M. Schuchter, MD, an oncologist and Chief of Hematology Oncology at Penn Medicine, suggests that you don’t always need to reach for SPF 100, either. “For most people, I recommend an SPF of 30,” she says. “There are people who need to use higher numbers [due to risk factors], but SPF 30 is generally what we recommend.” Penn Medicine also suggests applying at least one ounce of sunscreen (the size of a shot glass) to all exposed areas of the body at least 15 minutes before going outside. Repeat every two hours.

2. Be smart in the sun. Limiting sun exposure is a critical aspect of skin cancer prevention. “Think of sunscreen as just one small part of avoiding excessive sun exposure,” explains Dr. Schuchter. “It’s also about wearing hats, protective clothing and seeking shade.” Practice good judgment when spending time outdoors between 10am and 2pm—that’s when the sun is at its strongest. Wearing dry, loose-fitting clothing helps limit exposure.

3. Know your family history. According to this Penn Medicine article, approximately 10 percent of people with melanoma have a family history of melanoma. As such, it’s important to consult immediate family members about their histories with the disease. The information gleaned from these conversations may allow you to make savvier decisions regarding skin cancer prevention, such as more frequent skin exams or a higher SPF.

4. Conduct self-check exams. Proactivity is key when preventing and detecting skin cancer. By checking your skin regularly, you’ll be better able to recognize any changes. Dr. Schuchter notes, “Melanoma can occur anywhere, so we want people to examine their skin completely.” To do a thorough self-check at home, the American Cancer Society provides a handy, straightforward diagram that details how and where to check for skin abnormalities.

Because skin cancers can present differently — it may look like a lump, bump, sore or spot, according to the American Cancer Society — you’ll want to know what to be on the lookout for, specifically. Penn Medicine suggests following the ABCDE system to help identify suspect moles:

  • A is for asymmetry. If you could fold the mole over on itself, the two halves would not be the same size or shape.
  • B is for borders. Melanomas often have very irregular borders.
  • C is for color. Melanomas are often darker than other moles and have different colors in different parts of the mole.
  • D is for diameter. Melanomas are often—but not always—larger than other moles.
  • E is for evolving. Melanomas often change their size or appearance.

5. Avoid tanning salons. This should go without saying, but please, please don’t hit the tanning bed. And while you’re at it, skip any intentional sunbathing. With UV as a proven carcinogen, neither is safe and studies have repeatedly shown that indoor tanning increases a person’s risk of getting skin cancer.

For more information about finding a Penn Medicine physician, click here. You can also download the free cancer prevention guide or schedule a screening at Penn Medicine.