Best practice to help prevent skin cancer is sunscreen

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Oswald Lightsey Mikell

Millions of sun worshippers will hit the beaches this summer to work on the perfect, golden tan. However, you don't have to be a sun worshiper to be overexposed to the sun's damaging rays.

Those of us living here in the Lowcountry, and other warm climates, are particularly at risk.

Q: What is skin cancer?

A: Skin cancer begins in your skin's top layer - the epidermis. The epidermis is a thin layer that provides a protective cover of skin cells that your body continually sheds. The epidermis contains three main types of cells:

• Squamous cells lie just below the outer surface and function as the skin's inner lining.

• Basal cells, which produce new skin cells, sit beneath the squamous cells.

• Melanocytes, which produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its normal color, are located in the lower part of your epidermis. Melanocytes produce more melanin when you're in the sun in order to help protect the deeper layers of your skin.

Where your skin cancer begins determines its type and your treatment options.

Q: How does tanning causes cancer?

A: Indoor and outdoor tanning can be dangerous, because the same ultraviolet radiation that provokes a tan also damages DNA. Tanning is actually the body's response to that damage. The darker color is actually your skin adding an additional layer of protection for the DNA.

Q: Is there a way to tan responsibly?

A: Yes, use a sunscreen with SPF. SPF is an abbreviation for Sun Protection Factor. The SPF numbers, such as 15, 30 or 50, indicate how long a topical sunscreen remains effective on the skin. To figure out how long you can stay in the sun with a given SPF, use this equation:

Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time

For example, if you burn after 10 minutes of sun exposure, an SPF of 15 will allow you to be in the sun for up to 150 minutes without burning. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends SPF of at least 30 and 50 is better.

Q: How do I know if I have skin cancer?

A: You should schedule a yearly exam with your dermatologist. Additionally, you can do self-exams. If you notice any difference in your skin or notice an area that is concerning and does not disappear within a couple of weeks, you should schedule an appointment for a profession consultation.

Checking your skin for suspicious changes can help detect skin cancer at its earliest stages. Early detection of skin cancer gives you the greatest chance for successful skin cancer treatment.

Thankfully, most forms of skin cancer are treatable. Call a dermatologist for a consultation and to learn about treatment, including Mohs surgery and cosmetic repair.

Dr. Oswald Lightsey Mikell, certified by the American Board of Dermatology and the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, is the owner of Dermatology Associates of the Lowcountry.

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