UV rays are the part of sunlight that causes skin cancer and skin aging. Tanning beds also emit UV radiation. Tanning beds cause the same skin damage as the sun.
You can protect your skin from damaging UV rays by following these steps:
- Avoid going outdoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest.
- Do not use tanning beds.
- If you are outdoors, seek shade.
- Use sunscreen and lip balm with at least SPF 30. Apply liberally at least 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
- Cover up. Wear dark, tightly woven clothing. Pick a hat with a large brim to protect your ears and neck.
- Wear sunglasses with both UVA and UVB protection.
- Use extra caution if you are near water, snow or sand. They can reflect and amplify the sun's rays.
BY Kellie Bramlet Blackburn
A sunburn is not the same as when you burn your skin on something hot.
“When we think of a burn, we think of heat. But it’s not the sun’s heat that burns our skin,” says Saira George, M.D., an MD Anderson Cancer Center dermatologist.
That’s why you can still get sunburned when the weather is cold.
“Sunburns are from ultraviolet radiation – or UV rays – causing damage to the skin,” George says.
How your skin changes during a sunburn
When ultraviolet radiation from the sun reaches the skin, it damages the skin cells and causes mutations in their DNA.
“Our bodies have a lot of amazing mechanisms to prevent and even correct these mutations,” George says. “But if the skin cells get more UV exposure than they can handle, the damage may be beyond repair, and the cells die off. Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and bring immune cells to the skin to help clean up the mess. All this causes the redness, swelling and inflammation we associate with a sunburn.”
The sunburn will eventually heal, but some of the surviving cells will have mutations that escape repair. These cells could eventually become cancerous.
Can you reverse sun damage?
Some beauty products claim they can reverse sun damage or even stimulate cell repair. But no research has shown that any topical skin care product or lotion can reverse sun damage.
“There’s no simple way to undo sun damage yet,” George says. “But there are lots of simple ways to prevent it by being sun-safe and avoiding sunburns.”
Tanning bed use, or indoor tanning, was once considered a safe and convenient way to get a tan. However, indoor tanning is now recognized by health care experts as a dangerous practice that sharply increases a person's risk for skin cancer.
The younger a person is when they begin using tanning beds, the greater their risk for skin cancer. Starting indoor tanning before age 18 increases melanoma risk by 85%. Starting between ages 18 and 24 increases melanoma risk by 91%.
To protect yourelf from skin cancer and premature aging, avoid tanning bed use.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. It's also one of the most preventable. The primary cause is exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds.
People of all skin colors can develop skin cancer. It's one of the easiest cancers to detect and most types are highly curable.
Risk factors for skin cancer include:
- A history of frequent or intense sun exposure
- Tanning bed use
- One or more blistering sunburns
- Red or blond hair, fair skin, freckles and blue or light-colored eyes
- More than 50 moles
- A family history of melanoma
- A personal history of melanoma
- A personal history of basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers
If you fall into one or more of these categories, talk to your doctor about getting a skin cancer screening exam.
BY Kellie Bramlet
Skin cancer screening exams are the best way to catch melanoma and other skin cancers early, when they’re easiest to treat.
If you’re at increased risk for skin cancer, you may need an annual skin cancer screening exam. You may be at increased risk if you have:
- Red or blond hair, fair skin, freckles and blue or light-colored eyes
- More than 50 moles
- History of frequent or intense sun exposure
- One or more blistering sunburns
- Family history of melanoma
- Personal history of basal cell and/or squamous cell skin cancers
Even if you aren’t at increased risk, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your skin. If you notice an irregular mole or spot, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist for a diagnostic exam.
We talked to Patricia Andon, a patient at MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center, about what to expect during a skin cancer exam.
Scheduling a skin cancer screening
Patricia was on vacation when she first noticed a spot on her leg. The skin in the area was starting to change quickly and becoming red and irritated.
She knew that changes on her skin, especially new spots or changing moles, could be skin cancer symptoms. As a child, she lost a family friend to melanoma, and that experience stayed with her. She knew she needed to see a dermatologist.
“I scheduled an appointment for as soon as we returned,” she says. She called MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she used work in Information Services.
During the appointment
When Patricia arrived at her appointment, she was asked to change into a hospital gown so her dermatologist could examine her entire body. Skin cancer can occur anywhere, including the scalp, the mouth, the soles of your feet and the genital area. That’s why it’s important for your dermatologist to make a thorough examination.
The doctor looked at her skin from head to toe, looking for signs of skin cancers. Most skin cancers fall into one of these three categories:
- Basal cell: a slow-growing cancer that seldom spreads, signaled by an irregular spot on the skin
- Squamous cell: more likely to spread, but much less common. Also starts as an irregular spot or patch of skin
- Melanoma: makes up only 2 percent of cancers, but is the most aggressive. It starts with an irregular mole.
Patricia shared the spot that was concerning her. The doctor examined it and assured her it was nothing to worry about. It was dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin. She wrote Patricia a prescription that she was able to fill that day.
“The whole examination took no more than 10 minutes,” she says.
Fortunately, Patricia did not have any suspicious spots or moles. But sometimes dermatologists find spots on the skin that they may be concerned about.
When a dermatologist finds a suspicious mole or patch during a skin exam, he or she will determine whether it’s best to monitor it or remove it. It may even be documented with photos so patients can keep up with any changes.
If the mole or spot does need to be removed, the patient could have it done that day or schedule another appointment. This may require one or two small stiches.
Then, a biopsy will be performed on the skin sample. The patient will get the results in the next couple of weeks, along with follow-up instructions from the doctor.
Patricia plans to return to her dermatologist next month for a follow-up appointment.
“Now I’m not nervous about going back because I know exactly what to expect,” she says.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.
Regular screening for those at high risk of skin cancer can detect
the disease earlier, when it's most treatable.
If you have dark skin, you may think you have natural protection from sunburns, sun damage and skin cancer. But the relationship between skin color and skin cancer is complicated.
“People with dark skin may have the misconception that they are immune to skin cancer because their skin has more melanin – or pigment,” says Ana Ciurea, M.D. “While they are less likely to get skin cancer, they are still at risk.”
What should darker-skinned people know about their skin cancer risk?
the most serious form of skin cancer, is much more common in white men
and women than in Latinx or Black individuals.
But skin cancer is often detected in those with darker skin at later stages. So, their cancers are less likely to be treated successfully. For example, a recent study showed that only 67% of Black patients were alive five years after their diagnosis, compared to 92% of white patients.
Skin cancer is not harder to detect in people with dark skin. Yet, the lack of awareness among patients and medical care providers, along with the fact that the cancers develop in unusual locations, makes it less likely that cancers will be found.
“Skin cancer is highly curable if it’s found early,” says Ciurea. “The key is awareness.”
What skin cancer symptoms should darker skinned people look out for?
People with darker skin are more likely to develop skin cancer in
areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, like the palms, soles of the
feet, inside the mouth, in the groin area or under the nails. Between
30% and 40% of cases appear on the soles of the feet.
It’s a good idea to examine these areas regularly. And ask a friend, family member or your hairdresser to examine your scalp. Use a hand-held mirror for hard-to-see areas, and pay close attention to the feet, groin, hands and inside the mouth.
Look for dark spots that increase in size, change size, shape or color, bleed or become painful, as well as:
- Non-healing sores (cuts or wounds)
- Sores that go away and come back
- Sores that do not heal quickly
- Dark bands on the nails or around the nails
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer in darker skin. It usually looks like a pink, firm nodule. It is most likely to appear on the legs, feet, anal or genital areas.
“The most important thing to look for is change. Any suspicious mole or spot should prompt a visit to a professional,” says Ciruea.
Do people with darker skin need sunscreen?
Yes. Melanin helps protect against sun damage and reduces the chances of sunburn. But dark skin can burn, and anyone can get skin cancer.
“Sunscreen helps, but the best way to protect your skin is to avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest,” says Ciurea.
If you have to be outside, wear protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses with broad-spectrum protection. And remember to reapply your sunscreen every two hours or after sweating or swimming.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789
I was a real sun-worshipper growing up, so I spent a lot of time at the beach. Galveston Island is only an hour away from my hometown of Houston. And I was in a surfing club as a teenager that went all up and down the Texas coast. Back then, sunscreen wasn’t really a thing. So, I got a lot of bad sunburns.
That didn’t become an issue until my early 40s. I developed a little itchy spot on the crown of my head. The dermatologist who biopsied it in 1997 said it was squamous cell carcinoma, a fairly common type of skin cancer. But it wasn’t very big and she was able to shave it off pretty easily, so I didn’t worry about it.
Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with melanoma twice: once in 2012 and again in 2019. I am cancer-free now, thanks to surgery and radiation therapy back then and ongoing immunotherapy today. But melanoma is a much more serious type of cancer than squamous cell carcinoma. So, I am much more serious about protecting my skin.
I skipped sunscreen and hats despite my history of sun damage
I knew I’d accumulated some sun damage as a teen and young adult, but for many years, I still didn’t bother to wear sunscreen or hats. A coworker scolded me routinely about it, but I’d still go out and play golf with no protection.
As a result, my scalp got burned fairly frequently. But the way I saw it, I already had a dermatologist, so she could take care of anything that popped up. I’d been seeing her every three months for a decade by then. And I never missed an appointment.
My melanoma symptoms
Then, one day in February 2012, I saw a little round area right on the top of my head. It was kind of pink-ish, and looked like a keloid scar. I was having another little spot of squamous cell carcinoma removed at the time, so the dermatologist asked her husband, a Mohs surgeon, to come take a look. He did and said he’d remove it when the stiches came out.
By the time I returned to his office, the spot had gotten a little ugly looking. The edges were ragged, and it was about the size of a dime. Back then, I still had hair, so when I flipped it back for the surgeon to take a look, he said, “Oh, my goodness. We need to get that off right now.” He took a sample of the growth and sent it off to the lab for analysis.
The next day, my doctor called. The biopsy showed it was melanoma.
My shocking melanoma diagnosis
Even though I’d been getting a couple of spots burnt off every so often for years, I was still shocked by my first melanoma diagnosis. I said, “How can this be? We’ve practically been dating for the last 10 years.”
She said my bump was actually a mixture of cells. Some were regular melanoma, and others were desmoplastic melanoma. It was more aggressive and faster-growing than other skin cancers I’d had, so it needed to come off immediately. She was arranging the surgery right then.
My melanoma treatment
I had surgery to remove the melanoma on May 16, 2012. But afterward, my doctors couldn’t decide whether or not I needed additional treatment. I went to MD Anderson for a second opinion. My doctors there recommended five doses of radiation therapy.
I ended up having that treatment at MD Anderson, under world-renowned radiation oncologist Dr. Gunar Zagars (now deceased). That kept me cancer-free until my relapse last year. Now, I’m on an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab, and show no evidence of disease. But I know I’m one of the lucky ones. So, I try to be really careful.
I live in Clear Lake today, which is just 35 miles from the coast. So, I’m still at the beach quite a bit. But now, I know that sun damage is cumulative. So, I’m not as cavalier about protecting my skin. I put on a hat and wear sunscreen religiously. And I tell everyone I know to do the same.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Almost everyone has at least one mole, and you may already regularly check your moles for signs of change.
That’s a good idea since a changing mole can mean that something has gone wrong in the cells and a cancer is forming.
So, does that mean that moles are cancerous? Or that you will get skin cancer if you have moles?
What are moles?
Moles are clusters of melanocytes. These are the cells in our skin that give it color. These melanocytes are normally spread out between other skin cells. Their job is to transfer pigment, called melanin, to neighboring cells to help protect them from ultraviolet damage. When melanocytes grow as a cluster or group instead of spreading out, we call it a mole. It’s not clear exactly how or why our skin forms moles, but we think genetics and sun exposure may play a role.
Are moles cancerous?
Moles are not cancerous or dangerous. They are simply a group of normal melanocytes. But if their DNA gets damaged, it can cause them to turn cancerous. These cancerous growths of melanocytes are called melanoma. When the cancer cells in melanoma divide, they form a disorganized group or cluster that looks like a new or changing mole.
How do you tell the difference between normal moles and melanomas?
Moles usually form before you reach age 40, and they look somewhat similar. They are slow growing and don’t change quickly. The cancer cells in melanoma divide and grow abnormally, so a melanoma often looks like an “ugly duckling” mole. It will likely look different from any other brown spots on your skin, it may be new, and it may continue to change over time.
You can examine your moles using the ABCDEs guide for melanoma.
Ray and the Sunbeatables®
A Sun Safety Curriculum that includes fun and engaging lessons to help children practice sun safety habits.
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Blood Donor Center locations are being held by appointment only.