Since California fully reopened on June 15, 2021, people continue to flock to public venues like beaches, parks, concerts and outdoor restaurants to recapture some of the summer fun in pre-COVID-19 times. After so many months cooped up indoors during the pandemic, spending time outside benefits the body, mind and spirit, but it still remains a threat to our skin.
About one in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer in their lifetime. Sun exposure is one of the biggest risk factors to damaging the skin and as the state and Bay Area continue to see record temperatures, taking precautions are key to keeping your skin healthy and cancer free.
“Staying out of the sun is the best way to avoid sun damage and prevent skin cancer,” said Dr. Leon Clark, Alameda Health System’s (AHS) Dermatology division chief. He encourages all his AHS patients to seek shade when appropriate. He shares a creative tip that patients can easily remember. “The time to seek shade is when your shadow is shorter than you are,” he said. “This means the sun is at its peak of the day.”
Unfortunately, many people believe that this is the perfect time for tanning on the beach or lying by the pool. It’s clear from the literature that there is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan. In addition, for those who think indoor tanning beds are safe, Clark shares that a young female with a history of tanning bed use is three times more likely to get skin cancer. Tanning increases your overall risk of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
“The most common type of skin cancers I see at AHS which mirrors U.S. skin cancer cases are BCCs and SCCs that make up 95 percent of all skin cancers and are highly curable,” says Clark. The remaining five percent are melanomas that have a high mortality rate and require more urgent evaluation and treatment for each patient shares Clark.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, BCC is the number one type of skin cancer in the US with an estimated 3.6 million cases diagnosed each year. It grows very slowly and rarely spreads to become life-threatening. SCC, the second most common type of skin cancer is usually not life-threatening although it can be more aggressive than Basal Cell if not treated. It often looks like a firm, red nodule or flat sore with a scaly crust.
Understanding BCC and SCC causes, risk factors and warning signs can help to detect them early when they are the easiest to treat and cure. That is why Clark tells his patients to do a “body check” every three months for new or unusual moles or spots.
“I recommend patients get familiar with their bodies so they can identify anything they see that looks different or suspicious on any part of the skin,” he says. For example, look for new or existing moles with changes in size, color, shape and location. If moles are itching, burning or bleeding, patients should seek treatment.
Clark’s recommendation for patients to check themselves every three months extends to people of color. “We really need to dispel this myth that people of color are immune from the risks of skin cancer and that they don’t need to wear sunscreen or watch for changes on the skin,” he said. “Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. Patients with dark skin can and do get skin cancer even if they’ve never had a sunburn.”
In fact, according to Clark people of color often have worse outcomes because they tend to be diagnosed at a later, more aggressive stage thinking that their spots are just atypical moles or just small light or dark spots that will go away.
On the bright side, the most common type of skin conditions Clark treats for patients with black or brown skin are hyperpigmentation (dark spots) and hypopigmentation (light spots). “The great thing is that sunscreen helps to treat both conditions,” says Clark. He encourages everyone to enjoy the outdoors this summer but remember to always protect your skin.
Dr. Clark’s top five tips on how to protect your skin include:
- Wear sunscreen every day (SPF 30 or higher – water resistant, broad spectrum and zinc or mineral based)
- Seek shade from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when appropriate
- Wear lightweight protective clothing including a wide-brimmed hat
- Wear sunglasses that filter out UV light
- Check your body every three months for any changes to the skin
For more information on skin cancer risks, symptoms and prevention, please visit:
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) website
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website
American Cancer Society (ACS) website