When it comes to preventing skin cancer, I like to think we all know the sun safety basics. You apply your sunscreen (SPF 30 and up!) day in and day out, remember to reapply, and seek shade. But given that skin cancer remains the most common type of cancer in the United States, it’s always worthwhile to do a sun safety refresher course. If you follow dermatologist tips, get religious body checks, and know the tell-tale signs of a suspicious mole, you’re *much* better equipped with the knowledge and know-how to prevent skin cancer—or at a minimum, catch it early.
To get the complete low down on what qualifies as a I-should-get-this-professionally-examined type of birthmark or mole, learn which unexpected body parts need some extra love from SPF (P.S. it’s the bottoms of your feet), and ensure you’re doing everything in your power to prevent skin cancer, keep reading. We tapped top dermatologists for their best tips.
First Things First: What Is Skin Cancer?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, its estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, making it the most common cancer in the US. But what is it? At baseline, it “involves the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin,” according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick.
Chances are, you hear the most about melanoma cancer, but there are a handful of other types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and Merkel cell carcinoma. “Not all skin cancers are dangerous," she adds. If caught early, you may only need a small excision. But if uncaught or untreated, lesions can grow, or in extreme cases, lead to death.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Your likelihood for developing skin cancer boils down to two factors: genetics and environment. For example, people with certain features (think: fair skin, blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes), simply have a higher chance of developing skin cancer. Family history also comes into play, particularly in regards to melanoma. “If there's a family history of melanoma, the next generations have a higher chance [of developing it],” states board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Dr. Marc Glashofer. “It's like a lottery. They have a few extra genetic lottery tickets compared to somebody with that family history doesn't have that. It doesn't mean that somebody is going to definitely get skin cancer, but genetics play a role.”
Genetics aside, anyone can develop skin cancer, particularly if sun safety is thrown out the window. “The majority of basal cells and squamous cells arise from constant sun exposure,” says Dr. Glashofer. “The sun causes UV radiation, and that radiation causes genetic damage. If we keep getting a sunburn over years and decades, we're getting these continuous hits to our cells. Our ability to repair those damaged cells decreases as we age.” The result, unfortunately, is the development of skin cancer.
How to Prevent Skin Cancer, According to Dermatologists
Good news: Following sun safety rules and keeping a close eye on moles, birthmarks, and spots on your skin can help you prevent skin cancer.
Always Wear Sunscreen
Sunscreen isn’t optional—you need to wear it regardless of the season, your surroundings, or the time of day. “As a dermatologist, I recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays,” advices board-certified dermatologist at Union Dermatology Dr. Nkem Ugonabo. You’ll also need to make sure you’re actually applying a sufficient amount of product to give you said protection in practice. “It is important to apply enough sunscreen which is the equivalent of two finger-lengths, the index and middle finger, for the face and neck and one ounce, the equivalent of one shot glass, for the body,” adds Dr. Garshick. “It is especially important to remember the scalp, ears, backs of the hands and tops of the feet, which are areas that are frequently neglected.” That sunscreen, in that quantity, then needs to be reapplied every two hours or sooner if you’re sweating or swimming.
It’s also important to note that *everyone* needs to wear sunscreen—as *everyone* is susceptible to skin cancer, even those with deeper skin tones who are less likely to get sunburnt. “There is a decreased risk of skin cancer in darker complexions, but that doesn’t mean that those skin types won’t get skin cancer,” warns Dr. Glashofer. “They need to be aware of prevention methods too.”
Bask Sheer Moisturizing Sunscreen
iS Clinical Extreme Protect SPF 30
La Roche Posay Anthelios Melt in Milk Sunscreen
Andalou Naturals Daily shade + Blue Light Defense Facial Lotion
Stay in the Shade
Trust me, I get it: Baking in the sun for the sake of a tan is tempting. But in reality, the umbrella is going to be your best friend. “Staying in the shade and avoiding peak hours in the sun, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., can be helpful to protect the skin,” says Dr. Garshick. “Staying in the shade doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t need sunscreen but rather the benefit of sunscreen and shade is better than either one alone.” Per Dr. Glashofer, it’s all about “risk reduction.” Avoiding the sun 24/7 is impossible, but seeking shade when possible is a smart way to minimize exposure.
Invest in UV-Protective Clothing
Amazing brands like Lululemon and Athleta have started created Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing, so there’s plenty of cute, protective tops and pants at your disposal. With fabric specifically designed to deflect the sun’s UVB rays, the clothing will keep your skin safe—especially on days with prolonged outdoor exposure, like a beach day.
A hat is also always a good idea. “While any hat is better than no hat, a wide-brimmed hat ensures proper coverage and protection,” says Dr. Garshick.
Look for Suspicious Moles
One of the most important skin cancer prevention tips is to keep a close eye on your body. "Any spot that seems to be new, changing or generally looks unusual to you should be assessed by a dermatologist,” says Dr. Uganabo. Birthmarks are normal and not every single one is cause for concern, but you do want to examine each against the ABCDE checklist. According to Dr. Glasshofer, you should consult a dermatologist if your mole checks any of the following: A) a mole that is asymmetrical, B) a mole that has a non-circular border, C) a mole with multiple colors or changing colors, D) a mole with a large diameter, and E) a mole that is evolving over time. “You know you have something that should be assessed when it’s not healing, bleeding, symptomatic, or painful.”
While skin cancer will show primarily in areas that get the most sun exposure, it’s important to check everywhere. You can get skin cancer on your genitals (this is largely genetic in nature), on your scalp, palms, soles, mouth, butt, or even your nails. “This is particularly important for people with melanin-rich skin who are more likely to develop skin cancer in these areas,” says Dr. Uganabo.
Get Yearly Body Checks
The last—and most important—skin cancer prevention tip is to pay a visit to your board-certified dermatologist whenever you see a suspicious mole—and at least once per year for a complete body check. They’ll be able to give every inch of your skin a thorough once-over and identify anything problematic at the onset. “Some spots may not be an obvious problem, but often a professional can help to identify them and diagnose them,” says Dr. Garshick. The entire examination should only take a few minutes, however if anything looks a little questionable, the doctor may ask to perform a biopsy to confirm a diagnosis. “The sooner something is caught, often the smaller the spot is, the smaller the procedure will be, and the less likely the skin cancer will spread to the other areas of the body.”