5 Must-Know Facts About Skin Cancer
Summer time is the right time (though not the only time) for us to think about serious sun care, because contrary to what many of us believe, Latinos are not immune to the dangers of too much sun exposure.
Dr. Maritza Perez, a cosmetic dermatologist at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Medical Center and associate professor of clinical dermatology at Columbia University, both located in New York City, shares some important facts for all us, no matter what the particular hue of skin.
Fact #1: Dark-skinned people are not protected from the sun.
Dr. Perez explains that while people whose skin is darker are less susceptible to UV damage thanks to higher levels of melanin, the protective pigment that gives skin its color, all people regardless of race or color are at risk for developing skin cancer since skin cancer is associated with UV radiation from the sun. Darker-skinned people may be less susceptible to general UV damage however, they are more susceptible to acral lentiginous melanoma, an aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer often found on the soles of the feet and palm of the hands.
Fact #2: Latinos have a high rate of late-stage skin cancer.
The same myths that most of us with even a little melanin have absorbed about being immune to skin cancer is also is the leading reason people with brown skin are often diagnosed with later stages of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma, the abnormal growths or lesions that arise from the deepest layer of the epidermis, is the most common skin cancer found in Hispanics. These lesions or growths that can resemble red patches, or present as open sores, scars or pink, shiny growths, are commonly found about the head, neck and other parts of the body that receive regular sun exposure. This form of skin cancer arises from UV exposure, and rarely spreads, but can be highly disfiguring.
Fact #3: Not all sunscreens are created equal.
Don’t assume that once you’ve applied sunscreen—any sunscreen—you are fully protected. Since not all sunscreens provide the same level of protection, it is important to know what to look for before you buy. To select a sunscreen, find a product that offers both UVA (the long electromagnetic waves of the sun) and UVB (the short electromagnetic waves of the sun) protection.
Wearing a sunscreen that provides both UVA and UVB protection means your sunscreen will either absorb or reflect the sun’s most damaging rays. The difference on whether your product absorbs or reflects depends on the active ingredients. Choose a sunscreen that contains at least 4% to 5% zinc oxide, which can also be found labeled as micronized zinc, Parslo 1789, avobenzone, or titanium oxide. These active ingredients help to reflect the sun’s harmful rays away from the skin. And while most sunscreen products contain a mixture of both reflecting and absorbing ingredients, sunscreens offering UVA and UVB protection are generally referred to as broad spectrum protection.
As for the SPF number now recommended by dermatologists, it has increased to 30 or higher. So if you intend to swim or work in the sun, choose a waterproof sunscreen and reapply it liberally every 2 hours. And remember that it’s not a safe idea to prolong sun exposure just because you are wearing sun protection because it does wear off.
Fact #4: Fun in the sun can be safe.
With safe practices, we can enjoy our time in the sun. It is important to remember that the sun’s UV rays are strongest during the mid-day hours, which are 10 am to 2 pm. This should be the time to either avoid being in the sun or to limit sun time.
Since children are particularly susceptible to UV rays and tend to spend more time outside than adults, it’s important they are protected. Children playing in the sun should wear the proper sunscreen as well as a long-sleeve shirt, loose-fitting clothes, sunglasses and sun hat. Children under 12-months should always be shaded.
Understanding the UV Index can also help keep everyone protected. The higher the UV Index rating, the stronger the sun and higher the risk of eye and skin damage. When UV ratings are rated as 3, which is considered moderate, or higher, anyone in the sun should be properly protected by sunscreen. But remember: prolonged sun exposure of more than 2 hours, even if you’re wearing sunscreen, is not safe and should be avoided.
Fact #5: Skin self-exams can act as effective preventative measures.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 26% of Hispanic patients receive their first diagnosis of skin cancer in its advanced stages. Dr. Perez recommends everyone perform skin self-exams at least once a month. When doing a self exam, look for lesions that do not heal, or sores that bleed, crust or last more than a month.
People should also be aware of new moles or the reshaping of existing ones. Moles that change in color, are asymmetrical, or become larger than a pencil eraser could be signs of melanoma. It is important to also examine the soles of the feet, and under the nails as these areas could indicate a different form of skin cancer.