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Are You at Risk of Skin Cancer? How to Determine When to See a Dermatologist

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Key Takeaways

  • Skin cancers are more common in lighter-skinned individuals, but people with darker skin are still at risk.
  • Ultraviolet rays from the sun and the use of tanning beds are the most common causes of skin cancer.
  • You should see a dermatologist to get screened for skin cancer if you notice new or expanding spots, bumps, or moles on your skin.

With summer in full swing, dermatologists are reminding people about the importance of protecting their skin.

While sunburns and skin cancers are more prevalent in Caucasians, people of color are also at risk but they are often diagnosed at a later stage, and as a result, have increased complications and morbidity, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

“Skin with pigment is less likely to burn than lighter skin tones, but it is a myth to assume that skin of color is immune to skin cancer—no one is,” Susan Massick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Verywell. “Because skin cancer may not be on everyone’s radar, not everyone is screened for it or seeks medical attention for skin lesions.” 

Despite this, Massick said skin cancer is a very treatable disease and is often curable if it’s detected early and treated properly. 

Here’s what you need to know to understand your risk for skin cancer, ways to protect your skin, and when it’s time to see a dermatologist.

Different Types of Skin Cancer and Risk Factors 

There are three common types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. While these are most commonly seen in White people and those with lighter skin, the risk is not zero for people of color, said Prince Adotama, MD, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health.

Here is what each skin cancer can look like and who tends to develop each type.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) 

  • BCC is the most common type of skin cancer and frequently develops in people who have a lighter complexion. This can include people with paler skin, blonde hair, red hair, and blue eyes, Adotama said.
  • This is also a common skin cancer in Hispanic, Chinese and Japanese populations.
  • BCC often develops due to ultraviolet (UV) exposure, years of frequent sun exposure, or indoor tanning.
  • This type of skin cancer is commonly found on the head, neck, and arms but it can form anywhere else on the body, including on the groin, legs, or armpits.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

  • SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer and occurs in people with light skin, however, people of color with darker skin are also at risk.
  • This type of skin cancer is the most common in African Americans, but the incidence is quite low.
  • Long-term and cumulative exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds are the common causes of SCC.
  • SCC tends to form on parts of the body that get the most sun exposure, including the rim of the ear, face, neck, arms, chest, and back.

Melanoma

  • Melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancers but it is the deadliest form of skin cancer because it tends to spread.
  • This type of skin cancer often appears as moles that are already present on the skin or can suddenly develop as a dark spot on the skin.
  • Melanoma is often caused by intense and irregular sun exposure that leads to sunburn. Using tanning beds or machines can also increase someone’s risk for this type of skin cancer.
  • They can appear on any area of the body, especially parts that are not typically exposed to the sun.

According to Adotama, these different types of skin cancers are more common in lighter-skinned people because they have less melanin, a type of protective pigment that gives color to hair, skin, and eyes in humans.

People of color are “not as prone to UV damage that can then lead to mutations in the cells,” because they have more protective melanin in their skin, Adotama said.

However, he reiterated that people of color can still get skin cancer, especially if they don’t take measures to protect their skin.

Other factors can contribute to why certain skin types are more susceptible to getting skin cancer. Massick said UV light leads to cellular damage and some skin types are unable to repair the damage.

“The lighter your skin, the less able your skin is to withstand high-intensity UV rays,” she said. “Light skin is also more susceptible to sunburns as well. UV exposure and blistering sunburns increase risk of skin cancer.”

How Important Is Sunscreen and How Often Should I Apply It? 

One of the best ways to prevent skin cancer is to wear sunscreen, which helps protect the skin from harmful UV rays that are emitted by the sun, Massick said. The more consistently you apply sunscreen, the more protection your skin will have from the sun.

In addition, people who apply sunscreen consistently will be “better off in preventing and avoiding the changes from cumulative sun exposure, such as freckling and discoloration of the skin, increased fine lines and wrinkles, premature aging, and skin cancer.”

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing your next sunscreen or sunblock. 

  • Choose whatever broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen works best for you, whether that is a mineral sunblock because it is less irritating or a combination of mineral and chemical sunscreen because it is easier to apply or rub in.
  • Aim for SPF 30+ for daily use and 50+ for active or prolonged outdoor exposure.

Massick and Adotama recommend applying sunscreen about 10 to 15 minutes before heading outside for the day or attending any outdoor activities.

They also suggest reapplying sunscreen every two hours, especially if you will have prolonged exposure to the sun and heat, or if you’re sweating or swimming. Also, water-resistant sunscreens may only last 40 to 80 minutes so it’s important to reapply.

Other Ways to Prevent Sunburns and Skin Cancer

Beyond applying sunscreen, Massick said there are other ways to prevent sunburns and skin cancer, which include avoiding continuous or prolonged sun exposure, tanning beds, and peak intense sun hours which fall between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Adotama said people can also use other sun protection tools or items like hats, umbrellas, ultraviolet-blocking sunglasses, and ultraviolet protection factor (UPV) swimsuits or clothing to protect their skin from sunburns and skin cancer.

Lastly, informing the public and raising awareness, especially in communities of color is another crucial way to prevent sunburns and skin cancer.

Audrey Kunin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of DERMAdoctor, said showing what skin cancer looks like on darker skin might help people identify symptoms earlier. “Education to help raise awareness of the need to protect skin from the sun as well as informing the public that anyone can develop skin cancer is critical,” she told Verywell.

When Should I See a Dermatologist? 

If you notice any of these signs on your skin, it could be time to see a dermatologist. As a note, these are not the only ways skin cancer can appear.

  • A new, expanding, or changing spot or bump on the skin
  • An irregular or oddly shaped mole 
  • A multicolored mole or spot  
  • A sore that bleeds or won’t heal for several weeks 
  • A wart-like growth
  • A red patch that might crust or bleed
  • Greater than 100 moles on the body 
  • Moles in your nails 

In general, Adotama said people who have a lighter skin complexion or a known family history of skin cancer should visit a dermatologist regularly since they may have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

“Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, but it can be preventable and treatable. Be proactive with your health,” Massick said. “Protect yourself from the biggest risk factor—be mindful of the effects of UV rays, even on cloudy days and get screened by a board-certified dermatologist.”

What This Means For You

While skin cancer is more common in individuals with lighter skin, some skin cancers including BCC and SCC are prevalent in other ethnic groups. If you notice any new or changing bumps, moles or spots on your skin, schedule a screening test with a dermatologist. Most skin cancers can be cured if they are treated before they have a chance to spread and worsen. 



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