May is skin cancer awareness month. But really it should be a year-round conversation because you don’t only get cancer or get exposed to UVA and UVB rays in the spring or summer. True, the sun’s rays are stronger now and daylight is longer during these months but really, skin protection needs to be done every single day of the year. 365 days. No matter the weather. No matter your skin type. Seriously.
I have been preaching about sunscreen since I was in my early 20’s and realized how damaging (and horrifically aging) the sun can be. And when I say preaching I mean preaching. Friends and family probably find me completely obnoxious about it. But I don’t care. I mean most cancers are not avoidable. Don’t you want to avoid the ONE that is basically completely and easily avoidable? Thought so!
Here are some scary facts about skin cancer from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health and the Skin Cancer Foundation:
- It’s the most common form of cancer in the US
- Over 68,000 people are diagnosed with melanomas of the skin
- Over 48,00 are diagnosed with an early form of the disease
- Over 2,000,000 people are treated for basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer every year
- Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.
- One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.
The most common types of skin cancer are Melanoma (the one most likely to spread to other parts of the body), Basal cell (rarely spreads to other parts of the body) and Sqamous cell (can also spread to other parts of the body).
There are some risk factors also, which increase your chances of getting any of these cancers
- Sunlight (UV Radiation) – The sun’s UV rays damage the skin and can lead to cancer.
- Blistering sunburns – Those who have had at least one really severe sunburn in their lifetime have a higher chance of getting skin cancer.
- Lifetime sun exposure – How much over your lifetime you are exposed can up your chances.
- Tanning in the sun – People who go out to tan tend to have a higher risk of skin cancer because of their exposure.
- Tanning in a tanning booth or sunlamp – Artificial UV exposure is as bad as the sun. The risk of skin cancer is increased quite a bit by those who use these, under the age of 30 especially.
- Personal history – If you have had a skin cancer in the past you are slightly more likely to get it or another type again.
- Family history – If two or more close relatives (mother, father, brother, sister, child) has had melanoma or other types, you have an increased risk.
- Fair skin – If you have pale skin and/or light eyes and/or freckles, you have an increased chance (that’s me!).
- Medicines – Certain medicines like antibiotics, antidepressants and hormones can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Aside from the fact that you obviously want to avoid cancer if at all possible, you probably don’t want to look older than you are either. Believe me, I know people who tanned in the 70’s and 80’s before anyone really knew how bad the sun was, and their skin is very leathery, wrinkled and not so hot looking. The vanity of keeping my skin as young looking as possible is actually why I initially started wearing SPF constantly, especially on my face when I was young. Now I just do it because not doing feels kind of irresponsible.
Recently I was reading a Glamour magazine article about skin cancer and they described it perfectly. Basically it said that back in the day, no one knew how bad cigarettes were and no one took it seriously for decades. Then everyone started dying or getting really sick. That is sort of like what’s happening now with skin cancer.
And while we are at it, can we discuss the false message the media has been shoving down our throats for decades about how tanned skin is “healthy” skin and pale is bad somehow? I bought into this for a long time. And actually truth be told, I do like that when I have a (fake bottled) tan, especially on my face, I don’t have to wear as much makeup. But in the last couple of years I have kind of revolted against this way of thinking. It bugs me. Who are you to tell me tanned skin is better than pale skin? WHY IS IT BETTER? Oh right, it’s a marketing scheme. Like the message that if you are alone on Valentine’s Day, you are a loser.
Don’t buy into it. Don’t feel like when March comes around it’s time to bust out the tanning spray lest everyone think your are a pasty ghost. I actually kind of like being pale skinned because I would prefer to not be like everyone else and also, fake tans rarely either look good or natural. Plus the chemical in most of the bottled and spray tanning solutions has a reaction with your skin and it stinks 99.9% of the time. It’s not the lotion or spray that stinks, it’s the chemical reaction with the skin that causes that yucky scent (which doesn’t wash off, it wears off). No thanks. On top of the fact that as we all know by now, I am too damn lazy to bother exfoliating, applying carefully, maintaining, then reapplying all season long. I would rather be watching Dexter.
So now let’s talk about prevention. Well it’s really rather easy! Use sunscreen (1 ounce or two tablespoons for whole body), reapply it every 1-2 hours and don’t sit in the damn sun all the time, especially between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm when the sun is the strongest. People tend to think as long as they have sunscreen on it means they can then bask in it soaking up the rays. FALSE. It’s meant to help you for the times when you are exposed, not meant to allow you to then be in it constantly. That way of thinking is like thinking “Well hell, I am being treated for cancer with chemotherapy and radiation right now, so a few cigarettes won’t hurt at this point”. Just no.
I have tried many different kinds of sunscreens, especially for the face, which gets exposed the most (well that and hands). My favorites for face are Clinique Superdefense Age Defense Moisturizer with SPF 25 (this comes in various skin types) and Simple Skincare Light Moisturizer (drugstore brand). I much prefer moisturizers with SPF rather than just SPF because it just feels better on my skin. Plus I don’t like layering TOO many products on. For hands I prefer actual hand lotions with SPF, which are surprisingly hard to find. I hate the sticky greasy feeling of plain ‘ole sunscreen on my hands. I use either Ellen Sirot Hand Perfection or Deborah Lippmann’s Rich Girl. I wish there were more hand options! For body I am less picky. I like anything that isn’t too greasy, hard to rub in or that makes my skin have that white cast. My favorites lately are from Sun Bum, Australian Gold, Ocean Potion and J.R. Watkins.
Another thing I started doing a couple years ago (me and Mr. VV who is very mole prone, has light eyes, freckly skin and basically refuses to wear sunscreen unless I personally apply it on him) is have a yearly body check with a dermatologist. I schedule them a year in advance, do them and feel better knowing I am doing everything I can to protect myself. Mr. VV hates the feel of sunscreen and I understand that. Most men don’t use much lotions and potions, so the feel of it on their skin isn’t as familiar as it is with women. But I always tell him, “It might feel gross, but chemotherapy and radiation feels MUCH worse!”
So do I really practice what I preach? I try! For one I have never been to a tanning booth, thank god. I’ve been using sunscreen on my face for nearly 20 years, every day (if I leave the house for more than 5 minutes) and year round. More recently I have been making sure my hands are always protected when I go out. If I am going to be at a park, fair, swimming pool, ocean, hiking doing yard work, etc. I always put it on all over any exposed areas. Where I am not that great is remembering to put it on my body if say I want to go outside for 30 minutes and read. I will admit, I am a SUCKER for sitting in the sun when it’s warm outside. I love the sun. But now I don’t do it that often, and try to stay in the shade.
Here are some great sources of information about skin cancer including how to detect it, risk factors, prevention and treatments.
Stay covered and safe!