4 things you need to know to lower your risk of skin cancer


Easy steps can help prevent this common cancer

Most people know that to lower your risk of skin cancer, you should avoid getting too much sun and wear sunscreen when outdoors. However, there are other important things you might not know about skin cancer - a largely preventable disease that one in five Americans will develop in their lifetimes.

Here are four facts on skin cancer and steps you can take to protect yourself from the disease:

Not all sunscreens are created equal.

Sure, it's tempting to buy whatever’s on sale. But, though you might save a couple of bucks, it could come at the price of adequately protecting your skin.

According to Karen Chapel, M.D., a dermatologist at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, and immediate past president of the Michigan Dermatological Society, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen be broad spectrum - meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays - water-resistant and have an SPF of 30 or higher.

Dr. Chapel says it’s important to remember water-resistant doesn’t mean "waterproof,” and all sunscreen needs to be re-applied at least every couple of hours. Protective hats and clothing should also be worn when you're in the sun.

What you can do: Wear proper sunscreen and protective clothing when you head outdoors.

There is no such thing as a "safe tan."

Think slathering yourself in sunscreen means it’s safe to soak up some rays? Think again. “Sunscreen can give people a false sense of security," says Chapel. “People think if they put it on, it's OK to tan. That’s not the case. There is no safe way of getting a tan through UV rays. Your skin won’t even get the signal to tan until there's already damage to the skin's DNA.”

The same goes for tanning beds, which Dr. Chapel says are a driving factor behind the fact that melanoma is now the second most common cancer overall in women ages 15 to 29.

“A recent survey found 59 percent of college students have used a tanning bed,” she says, adding there’s currently a bill in committee in Michigan to ban tanning by minors, which is already banned in multiple states and countries.

What you can do: If you really want to go a shade or two darker, the safest way is to use a self-tanning cream or lotion containing dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the only FDA-approved color additive.

Melanoma is very curable, if it's caught early.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, accounting for only about 1 percent of skin cancer cases, but 7S percent of skin cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. However, melanoma is much easier to treat if it's caught early, before it's spread. According to the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, in the U.S., the 5-year survival rate for Stage I melanoma (when the cancer is localized and hasn't spread) is 99.5 percent. At Stage IV (where the cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or organs), the five-year survival rate is 16 percent.

“Early detection and prevention are vital,” says Dr. Chapel. “There are more and more treatments for metastatic melanoma, meaning melanoma that has spread, but while they often give people more time, they don’t often provide a cure."

What you can do: Perform regular skin exams in a mirror, looking for any changes in skin and moles, and if you notice anything, contact your doctor right away. Find out more by reading, “What Should I Look for on a Skin Self-Exam.”

Dark-skinned people get skin cancer, too.

While having dark skin is believed to offer some protection from skin cancer, the fact is people of all races and ethnicities get the disease, and when people of color do, it's more deadly.

According to a July 2016 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, African-Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma in its later stages than any other group, and had the worst prognosis and the lowest overall survival rate. African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians are also more prone to acral lentiginous melanoma, which is found on the palms of the hand, soles of the feet, underneath nails and between toes and lingers.

What you can do: No matter what your skin color, follow the advice in all these tips, and learn more about melanoma in people of color.

This story originally appeared in the Michigan.com / Detroit Free Press 2018 Cancer Guide.