Tola Oyesanya, MD

Prevention is Key to Happy and Healthy Skin

By Tola Oyesanya, MD

One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer, or melanoma, by the age of 70, making melanoma the most common cancer in the US. With warmer weather approaching and COVID-19 restrictions lifting, many of us can’t wait to enjoy outdoor events like the upcoming Preakness or head to the ocean for a weekend away. While spending time outdoors has health benefits, spending any time under the sun’s powerful UV rays without proper protection can damage your skin and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Before you venture outdoors, consider these five facts about skin health and sun safety.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S.

About 20% of Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70, regardless of skin tone; however, some people are at greater risk. Risk factors include family or personal history, lighter skin, older age, and having more than 50 moles. Melanoma is 20 times more common in white people than in people of color.

Protecting your skin from the sun is your best protection

Make sure you keep your skin safe by avoiding midday sun when the UV rays are strongest. When outdoors, stay in the shade, wear sunglasses, don a hat, and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF on all exposed skin. I recommend applying one ounce of sunscreen at a time and reapplying every two hours. 

Explore your sunscreen options

There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens use avobenzone and oxybenzone to absorb the sun rays. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as a protective layer on the skin to deflect the sun rays – the best way to protect yourself. For patients with sensitive skin and babies six months and older, I recommend mineral sunscreens, which are hypoallergenic. Newer options have a tint that blends well with darker skin tones. For those who wear makeup with SPF such as foundation, I recommend applying facial sunscreen with at least 30 SPF in addition to your makeup.

Early detection is key. 

When diagnosed early, melanoma is highly treatable with a 99 percent five-year survival rate. However, when detected at a later stage, the five-year survival rate is only 30%. Conducting a monthly self-skin examination is important to find any suspicious changes and talk with your doctor. The most common symptom of melanoma is a change in the skin, such as a mole that changes in size or color or a sore that doesn’t go away. Create a baseline inventory by checking your skin at home every month and noting any new skin lesions that stand out. If you can, take pictures so you can share them with your physician. If you suspect any form of skin cancer, contact your doctor or dermatologist immediately for an evaluation. Additionally, I recommend annual full-body skin exam with a dermatologist.

Many healthcare providers, such as Kaiser Permanente, offer teledermatology options, allowing patients to share photos of new skin changes via secure messaging or conduct a video visit with their primary care doctor or a dermatologist. This allows the doctor to evaluate the area and determine if further treatment, such as a biopsy might be necessary.

Skin cancer affects people of all skin tones. 

Anyone can develop skin cancer. While patients of color are less likely to develop melanoma, their survival rate is lower than white patients. For patients with darker skin tones, melanoma is often diagnosed at a later stage, making treatment more difficult. A study shows that the average five-year melanoma survival rate for Black patients is 67% vs. 92% for white patients. Given these staggering statistics, sun safety and self-skin examinations are important for people with darker complexions. Studies show that for people with darker skin tones, cases of melanoma are often found in their fingernails, toenails, palms, soles, inside the mouth, and the groin. 

Regardless of skin tone, everyone should be vigilant against skin cancer. Getting ahead of skin cancer by scheduling annual exams with your dermatologist is vital. If you don’t have one, contact your primary care physician to start the process. Keeping skin cancer at bay will maintain happy and healthy skin.

Tola Oyesanya, MD is a board-certified dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in Baltimore, Md.

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