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Habits Secretly Increasing Your Skin Cancer Risk, Say Oncologists

Save your skin and save your life.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Soaring temperatures are getting us excited to get out and enjoy the sun. Now is one of the most important times to remind ourselves about skin safety. While some sun exposure is enjoyable and healthy, as we all need vitamin D, anything in excess is damaging. Prolonged time in the sun can lead to the development of melanoma, a skin cancer that affects more than 96,000 Americans a year, killing more than 7,000. 

The Asymmetrical, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving (ABCDE) rule of skin cancer is an easy way to determine if the blemish on the skin is cancerous. This rule helps to differentiate between a problem growth and a simple, everyday freckle or mole.

Mary Stevenson, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health and David Polsky, MD, PhD, the Alfred W. Kopf, M.D. Professor of Dermatologic Oncology at NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center, recommends that everyone follow these tips to reduce the risk of skin cancers. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


You're Using Tanning Beds

Woman in bed solarium with protect glasses

It is well established that nearly all melanomas are a result of ultraviolet light exposure, most commonly from outdoor sunlight. It has also been established that ultraviolet light exposure from indoor tanning equipment is associated with melanoma. With indoor tanning, the more total time an individual is exposed to the ultraviolet light, the greater the risk of melanoma.


You're Getting Burn

a woman's sun burned back

With outdoor sun exposure, the more sunburns an individual suffers, the greater the melanoma risk. Melanoma risk for outdoor sun exposure is not as strongly linked to total lifetime exposure as it is to the total number of sunburns. Having said that, we know that a related skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, is directly associated total lifetime sun exposure. For example, we see more squamous cell carcinomas in people who work outdoors compared to those who work indoors.

Avoiding a burn is really only half the battle — there is no such thing as a base tan. Damaged skin is damaged skin. If you want a sun-kissed glow your first bikini day of the summer, you can get a pretty legit fake one with self-tanning products.


You Don't Wear Sunscreen Everyday

Woman apply sun cream on tanned back

Wear sunscreen every day, in all weather and in every season. Use 1 ounce, which would fill a shot glass. It should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 and say "broad-spectrum" on the label, which protects against the sun's UVA and UVB rays. Reapply at least every 80 minutes, or more often if you're sweating or swimming.


You Don't Use Physical Sunscreen

woman applying sunscreen lotion standing outdoors at the urban location during the sunny weather

It is especially important to use physical sunscreen (sunscreens with zinc or titanium), which is superior in efficacy to chemical sunscreen.


You Don't Do a Skin Self-Exam

Girl with birthmarks on the neck

Learn how to do a skin self-exam. Check your skin regularly so you know what's normal and to notice any changes or new growths. Seek dermatologist evaluation if you notice a changing, bleeding, or persistently itchy spot.


You Don't Follow This Rule


The best and recommended way is to apply the ABCDE Rule to determine if any mole/blemish is cancerous. It may not be a tool for diagnosis, but it will help differentiate a problematic growth from a regular growth.

The ABCDE acronym was designed to help individuals recognize skin lesions that could be melanoma, and have them examined by a dermatologist or other health professional. From a practical standpoint, you should be most concerned about Evolving lesions (i.e. lesions that are new or changing in their appearance over time). Lesions that are changing in size, shape or color over just a few months, particularly if they are raised, dome-shaped lesions, would be of greatest concern. Such rapid change is more commonly associated with melanoma than harmless skin growths such as moles.

More commonly, melanomas will change more slowly in appearance, for example, over several months' time, whereas moles remain quite stable in their appearance. The bottom line regarding Evolving is that skin growths that are changing, whether rapidly or slowly, or newly arising (particularly in older individuals) should be brought to medical attention.

If you are not aware of change in a lesion (perhaps if you discover it for the first time on yourself or a friend or family member) then the ABCD features are important, especially for flat lesions. The more of these features that are present, the greater the likelihood of melanoma.


Last Word From the Doctor

Female doctor checking skin of girl with dermatoscope in a clinic

Finally, a few other considerations. Individuals with a lot of moles or other harmless skin growths should be on the lookout for growths that look different from all their other skin lesions. These "ugly duckling" skin lesions should also be examined by a dermatologist, or at least closely observed by the patient for changes in appearance over time. Lastly, the ABCDE features should only be considered in skin lesions that are not bleeding. A bleeding skin lesion should be promptly evaluated by a dermatologist or health professional. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Mary Stevenson, MD
Mary Stevenson, MD is an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health. Read more about Mary
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