May is Melanoma Awareness month, which was created to save lives by educating the public about skin cancer. This topic is a passion of mine, as I started my career as a skin cancer researcher and have since seen over 100,000 cancer patients. Knowing the basics about skin cancer can save your life and boils down to two things: recognizing the easy-to-understand ways of detecting it and perfecting your use of sunscreen.
While there are three main types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most deadly. It’s also often the easiest to detect—it’s multiple shades of tan, brown and/or black. The key to suspecting melanoma is when a growth with the above features appears to change. They grow to exceed the size of a pencil eraser and change shape, becoming more jagged at the edges. The sooner you identify and treat melanoma, the better your chances are of catching it before it can become life threatening.
While the sun is the culprit of skin cancer, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid the great outdoors entirely. It all comes down to not only wearing sunscreen, but doing it right. Whether you are a religious sunscreen user or someone who “hates” it or is “too lazy” to use sunscreen, these tips are practical and easy for everyone to do. And they still let you have your summer fun.
Sunscreen isn’t just for the beach.
Do the math: Lets say you’re in the sun, without sunscreen, just 30 minutes a day, running into stores, having brief conversations or grabbing lunch. That adds up to 45 hours of unprotected sun exposure after three months of summer. That’s like sitting on the beach in full sunlight for two and a half days. So whether it’s a lightweight sun cream, or even foundation with sunscreen in it, apply something every morning to be sure your skin is protected.
Sunscreen is only as good as the person who is applying it.
Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to use SPF. Be sure to apply your sunscreen 10-15 minutes before you go outside. It needs time to adhere to the skin in order to fully protect. And be sure to apply it all over your face—I’m seeing an epidemic of skin cancer along the hairline because of this grooming issue. Believe me, if you thoroughly rub the sunscreen into your forehead it won’t mess up your hair. Besides, what’s worse: a scar from skin cancer surgery or a very localized bad hair day? And don’t forget your lips—the lower lip in particular gets the majority of the sun beaming down directly onto it. That’s especially dangerous because from the lower lip cancer spreads into the chest. Wear a lip product with SPF or, if you don’t have one handy, dab regular onto your lip.
If you think you need to burn before you tan, you’re dead wrong.
Sunburns are never ok! Burning is the top risk factor for skin cancer because it damages the skin’s DNA; that’s what makes the sun carcinogenic. Your tan should develop gradually—not all at once. Everyone is more fair and likely to burn in the beginning of summer. Increase your SPF number or avoid the sun sufficiently to prevent burning.
Pink is the new red.
Skin merely turning pink in the sun indicates excess exposure. Think of pink as a lighter shade of red or a lesser burn. Yes, the bar just got lower, but it’s for your own good. Your sunscreen level should be high enough to prevent pinkness.
Cute, but potentially deadly.
Yes freckles are cute, but in reality they are a desperate cry for help from your skin. Those spots occur when your skin is saying, “I cannot tan fast enough to deal with all this sudden sun. I’ll produce these brown spots as patchy protection. ” If you freckle then you are getting too much sun.
Know your number and don’t forget to reapply.
Most people are adequately protected with a sunscreen in the range of SPF 30-45. It’s diminishing returns for numbers beyond that. Remember, sunscreen is not a coat of armor. Just because you are wearing it doesn’t mean you are impervious to sun damage. Reapply after getting wet or perspiring, even if the label says water-resistant, as toweling dry removes some sunscreen. And you should still sit in the shade or wear protective clothing and a hat if it’s really blazing out.
Love your sunscreen.
You’re less likely to use a sunscreen if you dislike its feel on your skin. But everyone can find a sunscreen they like, maybe even love. Choose an oil-free sunscreen if you have oily skin, a complexion problem or dislike heavy creams. Have dry skin? Creams or lotions are good for you. I created Instant Radiance Sun Defense SPF40 for those looking for an SPF 40 in a tinted foundation and Dark Spot Defense SPF50 for those needing extra protection against forming brown spots. Oil absorbing SPF powders are another new innovation.
See, I told you that you can still have fun in the sun—you just have to be smart about it.
Board-certified dermatologist, dermatological surgeon and native New Yorker, Dennis Gross, M.D., founded his NYC practice in 1990 following extensive research at prestigious institutes, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He and his skin care expertise have been featured in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Find him on Instagram at @dennisgrossmd or www.dennisgrossmd.com.