News | Published June 7, 2013 | Written by David Shupp, MD

Causes and prevention of skin cancer

Skin cancer occurs more often than all other types of cancer combined. There are three common types of skin cancer. The most common type is basal cell carcinoma and will be diagnosed in Americans two to three million times in 2013. The second is squamous cell carcinoma and will occur 250,000 to 500,000 times in this country this year. The least common but most serious type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma. Approximately 80,000 new cases will be identified in the United States in 2013, resulting in around 9,000 deaths.

No doubt these are alarming statistics, but skin cancer is preventable. The overwhelming majority of all types of skin cancer are caused by ultraviolet radiation (UVR). UVR produces invisible rays emitted by the sun and tanning beds. UVR has been proven to be as carcinogenic (cancer producing) as cigarette smoke and nuclear radiation.

Detection of skin cancer starts with having some idea of what to look for on your skin. This includes watching for a new red or pearly spot (especially on scalp, face, ears, neck and hands) that does not heal or go away and may bleed or be tender to the touch.

Also, watch for new or changing moles on the face, body, arms and legs. Know the ABCDE’s of melanoma when observing your moles:

A – asymmetry
B – border irregularity
C – color that is uneven or showing multiple shades of tan, brown, black or blue
D – diameter of a mole measuring six millimeters or bigger
E – evolving mole or one that is changing or growing

Here are some tips for preventing skin cancer:

  • Sun protection and strict avoidance of tanning bed use are essential. Recent data reveals a 20 percent increase in the risk of developing melanoma with just one visit to a tanning bed. Sunburns, especially with blisters, are also damaging and dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer.
  • Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin before going out in the sun and should be reapplied every several hours especially if the skin becomes wet from swimming or sweating.
  • Sunscreen should be labeled as broad spectrum and possess a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
  • Wear protective clothing and seek shade when you are in bright sunshine.
  • If possible, adjust outside activities to minimize time spent outdoors during the intense sun of mid-day.

Only you can prevent skin cancer.

David Shupp, MD, is a dermatologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Group Colonnade in State College.