Protecting your skin to reduce your chance of skin cancer

Posted at 11:59 AM, Jul 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 14:00:41-04

During the COVID-19 pandemic many people are enjoying the outdoors more often because it’s a way to get out and about while still social distancing. Intermountain Healthcare doctors are reminding people to take care of their skin using sunscreen, sunblock and protective clothing.

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. One in five people will develop skin cancer at some point in their life.

Measured against other states, Utah has the highest incidents of melanoma, which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Experts say this is due to our higher elevation and frequent access to outdoor activities. They note there’s an increased risk for all Utahns, including people of color.

Dermatologists note sunscreen or sunblock isn’t just for going to the beach or hiking in the wilderness but anytime you’re out in the sun. Doctors say sun damage now can lead to serious problems down the road.

“People don’t realize that even though you may heal from a sunburn and be fine a week later it can lead to melanoma and other skin cancers years later,” said Bryce Desmond, DO, dermatologist at Intermountain Healthcare. “That’s why it’s vital to make protective measures a part of your daily routine.”

That’s what happened to Chip Hlavacek of South Jordan who received a bad sunburn on the top of his shaved head. About two years later Hlavacek noticed a large irregular growth on the top of his head which he mistook for an ingrown hair. A biopsy later revealed it was an aggressive melanoma which required two surgeries to remove the growth and lymph nodes in his neck. After a year of immunotherapy treatment Hlavacek has recovered and is back to normal health.

To reduce the risk of skin cancer doctors suggests the following:

  • Use sunscreen with a minimum of 30 SPF (sun protective factor), at least 15 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours and after swimming. Sunscreen provides a chemical defense. When applied appropriately it penetrates the skin and absorbs the ultraviolet (UV) rays before they can damage the skin.
  • As an even better option, use sunblock. Sunblock offers more protection because it sits on top of the skin. It reflects sunlight off the skin, blocking both harmful UVB and UVA rays. Sunblock typically includes zinc oxide or titanium oxide and used to remain white on the skin after applying, but most modern sunblock goes on clear.
  • Use sun protective clothing with a high UPF (ultra-violet protection factor) rating. Clothes with a 50+ UPF rating can block out more than 98 percent of the sun’s harmful rays. Regular clothing like a cotton shirt only has a 7 UPF rating when dry and a 3 UPF rating when wet. Sun protective clothing is also great because you don’t have to keep reapplying sunscreen to the areas they cover - just don’t forget to apply sunblock or sunscreen to the areas of the body exposed. Sun protective clothing is also a good option for people who may have allergies to certain types of sunscreens or sensitive skin.

Since the primary risk factor for melanoma is exposure to UV radiation, learning how you can protect yourself from UV radiation can help you reduce your risk of melanoma.

Other Prevention Tips:

  • Seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Establish an easy, daily sun protection regimen that you and your children follow.
  • Use broad-brimmed hats to protect your ace and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Do not let your skin burn. On average, a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns. It’s important to take the time and effort to prevent sunburns in the first plac
  • Check your skin. Dr. Desmond says it’s important for people to check themselves for changes to moles, bumps, or patches on their skin. These can be the early signs of skin cancer and people should see a dermatologist to further diagnose the issue.