What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

Everything you need to know about skin cancer and how to prevent it

Summers in Georgia can be brutal. Temperatures hover in the upper 80s, and the sun shines relentlessly for days on end.

» RELATED: Dangerous heat-related illnesses: What you need to know to stay safe in hot Atlanta weather

While this is great for those warm-weather cookouts and afternoons by the pool, it's not always good for your skin – especially when it comes to skin cancer risk.

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. And most cases of the deadliest kind of skin cancer (melanoma) are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light.

» RELATED: Study finds 67 percent of sunscreens don’t actually work — find one that does

And while UV rays make up a small portion of the sun’s rays, they’re the main cause of sun damage on the skin.
Nationwide rates of melanoma have more than tripled since the 1970s, despite better screening methods, more public awareness, and continued advances in treatment and diagnosis.

» RELATED: 10 ways to prevent hot car deaths

For every 100,000 people in the country, 21 new melanoma cases were reported from 2011-2015. Three died of cancer. In Georgia, the rate of new melanoma cases during that time range was even higher: 26.2 per 100,000 residents. 

Here are some lesser-known skin cancer facts, plus tips on keeping your skin protected year-round.

Skin cancer isn't just about a bad sunburn

Many people with skin cancer were often surprised by their diagnosis, because they didn't necessarily have recent sunburns.

» RELATED: New 'tan in a bottle’ drug could prevent cancer, study says

But the truth is, when it comes to basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of skin cancer, cumulative sun exposure – the kind that occurs over weeks and months and years – is just as damaging to your skin.

That means a week of laying by the pool for an hour poses about the same risk as one 7-hour beach day.

» RELATED: How to pick the right sunscreen — and which ones to avoid 

A cloudy day doesn't mean you're protected

Most of us know that we need sunscreen when it's bright and sunny, but what about when it's overcast?

The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that up to 80 percent of the sun's harmful rays reach us on cloudy days -- which means you aren't protected simply because the sun isn't out.

What's more, UVA rays -- the one's responsible for skin aging, freckling and wrinkles, can pass through car windows, office windows and other types of glass. So, just because you're indoors, doesn't necessarily mean you're protected, either.

» RELATED: 7 surprising things that can increase your risk of cancer

Skin cancer doesn't always look like a mole

There are three different types of skin cancer, and a mole is only symptomatic of one.

Basal cell carcinoma can appear as a persistent pearly, or skin-colored bump that may crust or bleed. Squamous cell carcinoma can appear as a patch of thick, scaly skin with raised edges. They may also crust or bleed, and usually won't heal or go away on their own.

Melanomas can be a mole. But they can also look like a bump or blemish that bleeds, itches or changes color, size, shape, consistency or diameter. Concerned about a mole or mark on your skin? Try the ABCDE method.

» RELATED: Sugar can fuel cancerous cells, study says

The difference in SPF protection isn't as big as you think

Skin protection factor, or SPF, is the amount of sun required to burn the skin while wearing sunscreen. And higher isn't always better. Sometimes it can actually be worse, because many people will apply a high SPF sunscreen thinking they can stay out in the sun longer, which isn't true.

SPF 15 blocks around 94 percent of UV rays; SPF 30 blocks around 97 percent. An SPF of 50 will block about 98 percent of UV rays, while an SPF of 100 blocks 99 percent.

And none offer 100 percent protection.

To keep your skin protected:

  • Wear sunscreen every day – rain or shine, indoors or out.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater 30 minutes before heading outside.
  • If you plan on swimming, or participating in an activity that will cause you to sweat excessively, reapply sunscreen every two hours.
  • Experts recommend using about one ounce when applying sunblock, or about one shot glass-full, depending on your body size.
  • Avoid indoor tanning beds.
  • Do a self skin-check monthly. Get undressed and take stock of freckles, moles and other marks using a mirror. If you notice that any of those marks are changing as time goes by, or they aren't healing, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist.
  • Skin cancer is easy to treat and cure when it's caught early, so make sure you're keeping up with annul skin exams with your dermatologist.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X