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Use Your Sun Smarts

When the weather is nice and the sun is out, you can't wait to spend time outdoors. But before you do, play it safe and protect your skin. If you don't, you risk a painful sunburn and worse—skin cancer.

Skin cancer can strike at any age, but it is more common in older people because they've had more years of sun exposure. Fortunately, you can take steps to reduce your chance of getting skin cancer, even if you haven't been careful about the sun before.

The power of the sun

Most skin cancer is caused by exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. When sunlight hits our skin, visible changes occur, such as freckling, burning and tanning. But other changes happen, too.

The UV rays break down fibers in the skin. Over time, sun exposure can cause the skin to sag, stretch and wrinkle, a process called photoaging. Sunlight also can damage the DNA in our skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer.

Are you at increased risk?

Anyone can get skin cancer, but your risk is higher if you answer yes to any of the following questions:

  • Do you have fair skin or light-colored hair or eyes?

  • Do you spend a lot of time outdoors?

  • Have you already been diagnosed with skin cancer?

  • Do you have a history of one or more sunburns as a child?

  • Have any of your parents, siblings or children had skin cancer?

  • Do you have many moles, large moles or moles that look unusual?

What can you do to prevent skin cancer?

To enjoy the sun safely, follow these tips:

  • Generously apply a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher at least 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or sooner if you get wet or sweat a lot.

  • Shield your eyes with sunglasses and protect your skin with a wide-brimmed hat, a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt and pants.

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you must be out during these hours, plan activities for shaded areas.

  • Check your skin regularly, noting any spots or growths and watching for changes. Also have your doctor check your skin for signs of cancer.

Skin cancer is preventable. It also is highly curable if it is caught and treated early, so be sure to check your skin often. If you need help checking your skin, ask a relative or friend. If you find anything that looks unusual, have your doctor check it.

Sun-safe habits

Protecting your skin from the sun can become a habit. Practice it daily, and you'll reap the rewards. So what's stopping you?

  • It's fast. It takes only a few moments to grab a hat and apply sunscreen.

  • It's convenient. You can shield yourself on the go with a spray-on or pump-bottle sunscreen. Many brands are fast-absorbing and nongreasy.

  • It's smart. The older we get, the longer it takes for the skin to heal and recover. Who wants to suffer a painful sunburn or dangerous, unsightly skin cancers?

What to look for

  • Basal cell carcinoma. This is the most common skin cancer. Warning signs include an open sore that doesn't heal, a reddish patch that may itch or hurt, a shiny bump that looks like a mole, a pink growth with an indentation in the center or a shiny scar like area. These signs often appear on the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This is the second most common skin cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma is often raised or lumpy, with rough, scaly surfaces on a reddish base. It often is found on the face, neck, bald scalp, hands, rim of the ears, or lower lip.

  • Melanoma. This type of skin cancer is uncommon, but the incidence of melanoma is increasing. If not caught early, melanoma spreads and can be fatal. Melanoma first appears as a flat or slightly raised, multicolored mole with an irregular border. It may develop in an older mole or appear as a new spot. Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body but is most often found on the upper back, legs or trunk.