Sunscreen vital to preventing skin cancer

PHOTO PROVIDED Dr. Emily Solow, a UPMC Susquehanna general surgeon, attends to a patient, cautioning that extended exposure to the sun can be harmful.

The warmth of the days this time of year pushes people outdoors to play or just to bask in the glow of the sun’s rays.

Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

“There is a tendency to think the sun is healthy,” said Dr. Emily Solow, a UPMC Susquehanna general surgeon. “If you have a nice tan you look healthy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The sun is responsible for the majority of skin cancers.”

Solow doesn’t recommend staying inside all summer and completely avoiding outdoors activities.

But certain precautions to protect oneself from the sun’s ultraviolet rays can be taken.

There’s little question, she noted, that the time spent in the sun increases one’s chances for developing skin cancer, especially if the skin is left unprotected.

Applying sunscreen to areas of the body exposed to the sun can go a long way toward protecting against sun burns and skin cancer.

Sunscreen lotion with an SPF of 30 or higher is recommended by the American Cancer Society.

The SPF number, or sun protection factor, indicates the level of protection against Ultra Violet B rays. Higher SPF numbers mean more protection.

SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93 percent of Ultra Violet B rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97 percent.

Wearing apparel that covers up skin otherwise exposed to the sun also is a good practice, Solow noted.

“I do recommend you stay out of direct sunlight, primarily between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” she said.

Fair-skinned people have a greater risk for skin cancer, but even dark-skinned people can develop skin cancer.

“And a lot of times,” it’s not noticed,” she added.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of cancer and tends to spread in the region where it first occurs.

Solow noted it’s the type of cancer that eats into tissue and surrounding tissues.

“Left alone, it can become very ugly,” she said.

Squamous cell carcinoma is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells originating in the skin’s upper layers.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma don’t often spread to other body regions and are rarely fatal.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body. If caught early, the survival rate for melanoma is high.

“Melanomas kill you more typically (than other skin cancers),” Solow said. “They can start out as a tiny little mole.”

A good practice, especially for those who spend a lot of time in the sun, is to make regular checks of the body for signs of irregular moles or discolorations on the skin.

“Check your skin monthly from head to toe,” she said.

Any kind of a change in a mole can be a sign of skin cancer. Open wounds that fail to heal should be checked as well.

What can often be brushed off as a harmless skin problem can turn out to be a skin cancer, Solow noted.

“If you have something on the skin that looks different from other things on your skin, get it checked out,” she said. “If you have age spots that are itchy, scaley, different from other spots, get them checked out.”

Skin issues that appear to be warts or even rashes can turn out to be cancers.

“Be vigilant with your skin,” she said.