Beyond the Sunscreen

Sunscreen isn't the only way to keep your skin healthy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Sunscreen seems like the obvious answer for protecting your skin from the scorching summer heat. It's easy, effective and widely known that it can help prevent sunburn, skin cancer, premature aging and wrinkles.

If all you're doing is slathering on the sunscreen before heading outside, you're probably not doing enough to protect your skin. Skin is the body's largest organ and yet the one that people often forget to take care of, especially when it comes to hot summers full of swimming, barbecues and lazy days at the beach.

Get Checked

Many varieties of skin cancer are treatable when detected early. Common skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and the more serious melanoma, all can be curable if recognized and treated early. The key is to get your skin screened on a regular basis -- even if you don't see anything that causes alarm.

Most people do not get their skin checked as often as they should, though those with a family history of skin cancer are generally more inclined to seek regular check ups. Often those without a family history avoid the annual checks and instead visit a doctor about their skin only if they spot something suspicious.

The American Cancer Society recommends annual skin check ups either by a dermatologist or a primary care doctor for everyone beyond the age of 20. Counseling for the skin also is recommended. Those with a family history of melanoma should get checked more often, generally every six months.

"Skin cancer rates go down if people come in for regular check ups," said Dr. Mary Evers, a dermatologist  with the Texas Dermatology Center.

For those concerned about the cost, many dermatologists offer free skin cancer screenings during the spring and summer months. Visit the American Academy of Dermatology's Web site at to find a location near you that is offering free skin cancer screenings. Dozens of doctors and hospitals offer the free screenings during the summer months.

What to Watch For

Go to a physician willing to regularly look at the skin since even some dermatologists may concentrate on other areas such as Botox and skip regular skin screenings.

Primarily during skin check ups, doctors look for moles that have changed in shape, size or color, or those that itch or bleed. Even a mole that a person has had since birth can become cancerous later in life.

They also check for round, pink bumps or scaly patches that could indicate basal or squamous cell cancer.

"It doesn't matter if it's flat or raised. It can become melanoma," Dr. Evers said.

If a physician identifies an area of the skin that is suspicious, the next step is generally a biopsy in which a small piece of tissue is taken from the area and sent to a lab for further inspection.

Though it should not be used as a substitute for an exam by your doctor, self exams are helpful in monitoring changes in skin and aiding in early detection. Self exams are recommended for use at least once a month.

Individuals should look for skin growths that increases in size and appear pearly, translucent, tan, brown, black, or multicolored. Additionally, watch existing moles, birthmarks, beauty marks or brown spots that: change color, increase in size, thickness or texture, has an irregular outline or is larger than the size of a pencil eraser.

Other warning signs include the appearance of such a mark after the age of 21, a spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab, erode, or bleed and open sores that do not heal within three weeks. Make sure not to ignore spots simply because they don't hurt. Schedule a doctor appointment right away if you find a patch of skin that is suspicious.

Avoid Tanning

Doctors advise against any form of tanning -- whether on the beach or in a tanning bed -- because any type of sun exposure is damaging the skin even if the result was a tan, not a burn.

"Any form results in ultra violent radiation," Dr. Evers said. "It's not safe to tan with either method. If your skin is tanning, you're damaging DNA."

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, indoor tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never used a tanning bed. Additionally those who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.

For those that enjoy the look of a tan, Dr. Evers recommends using self-tanning creams or spray tans. Neither will damage the skin, but can provide a bronze glow for those who enjoy the look of a tan. It is important to remember though, that even though creams and spray tans darken the skin, there is no added skin protection and sunscreen must be applied as usual when outdoors.

Other Methods of Sun Protection

In addition to sunscreen between SPF 15 and SPF 50, wide-brimmed hats are recommended, as well as the application of a lip protectant. Protective clothing can aid in sun protection. Make sure to wear clothing that protects as much of the skin as possible, though this will not provide full UV protection.

There is also a product that can be purchased and applied to clothing in the washing machine that adds sun protection to items of clothing you already own, and some outdoor stores sell tightly woven clothing that offers built-in UV protection.

Wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes or slipping on a shirt to protect additional areas of your skin also can be helpful, according to the American Cancer Society.

It is also best to avoid the midday sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and instead try to spend your time outdoors in the mornings or evenings. Seek shade if you are outside during the midday hours. The American Academy of Dermatology also says that Vitamin D supplements can be beneficial in protecting the skin.

Review Date: 
June 20, 2011