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Tips to reduce your risk of melanoma and protect your skin

Mom applying sunscreen to daughter

Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Melanoma is a cancer that usually begins in skin cells. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancer, but it’s more likely to grow and spread. While melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, if it’s caught and treated early, it is usually curable.

Melanoma begins in the part of the skin that makes a pigment called melanin. This pigment gives skin its tan or brown color. Melanin protects the deeper layers of the skin from some harmful effects of the sun. For most people, exposure to the sun causes the skin to make more pigment. The skin, in turn, darkens or tans.

Is it safe to tan?

Although many of us love that sun-kissed glow, the American Academy of Dermatology warns that there is no safe way to tan. In fact, when you tan you’re actually damaging your skin. Over time, the damage can speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for melanoma and other types of skin cancer.

What are the warning signs of melanoma?

Most moles, spots, and growths on the skin are harmless, but the Skin Cancer Foundation encourages everyone to look for the warning signs of melanoma and make an appointment with a doctor immediately if you see one or more of the signs.

A – Asymmetry

Benign (or non-cancerous) moles tend to be symmetrical. If you drew a line through the middle of the mole, the two sides would be the same shape and size. Melanomas tend to be asymmetrical. If you drew a line through the mole, the two halves would not match.

B – Border

Benign moles tend to have even borders, while the borders of a melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may have notches.

C – Color

Benign moles are all one color, usually a shade of brown. A mole with a range of colors may be a warning signal of melanoma. A melanoma could be various shades of brown, tan, black, red, white, or blue.

D – Diameter

Benign moles are often small. Melanomas are usually larger than the eraser on a pencil, though they may start off smaller than that.

E – Evolving

Benign moles tend to look the same over time. If a mole starts to change in size, shape, or color, see a doctor. The same goes for moles that bleed, itch, or become crusted.

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

While everyone is at some risk for melanoma, other factors can play a role, including the number of moles you have, your skin type, and family history. Anyone can get melanoma or another type of skin cancer, regardless of age, gender, or race.

Can using sunscreen reduce the risk of melanoma?

Sun exposure can increase your risk for developing melanoma, so it’s important to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone should use sunscreen every time you go outside, year-round, even on cloudy days.

Look for a sunscreen that offers:

  • Broad-spectrum protection (against UVA and UVB rays)
  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Water resistance

Following a few tips can help protect your skin from sunburn, aging, and skin cancer:

  1. Use the recommended amount of sunscreen, which is one ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass. Adjust this amount depending on the size of your body and how much skin you need to cover.

  2. Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before you go outside.

  3. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

  4. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.

  5. Don’t use sunscreen that’s more than three years old. If you use the right amount of sunscreen every time you go outside, a bottle probably won’t last more than a year.

What other steps can you take to reduce the risk of melanoma?

Sunscreen alone can’t fully protect you from the harmful effects of the sun. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends following a complete sun protection regimen to protect your skin and find skin cancer early:

  1. Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.

  2. Don’t get a sunburn. Remember that water, snow, and sand can reflect sunlight and increase your chance of sunburn.

  3. Avoid tanning. Never use a tanning bed or booth.

  4. Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a broad-brimmed hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses.

  5. Check your skin for warning signs every month.

  6. See your doctor or a board-certified dermatologist for a skin exam every year. Melanoma and other skin cancers are highly treatable when caught early.