No matter the time of year, it’s important to protect your skin from the sun, because ultraviolet rays damage skin cells and can lead to premature aging and skin cancer.
There are two types of ultraviolet rays: ultraviolet A (or UVA) and ultraviolet B (or UVB). UVA rays are the main cause of premature wrinkles and sunspots--even during the fall, winter and spring. (Think UVA for aging.) UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns. (Think B for burns.) Although UVB rays are around during the cooler months, they're strongest during the summer.
“Both types of rays damage the DNA of skin cells and can contribute to skin cancer,” says David Ozog, M.D., a dermatologist with Henry Ford Health. “Because of this, it’s important to apply sunscreen with at least SPF 30 on any exposed areas of your body, year-round.”
Be especially vigilant during the summer, when the days are longer, the sun’s rays are stronger, and more time is spent outside.
The Different Types of Skin Cancer
“There are three main types of skin cancer,” says Dr. Ozog. “Basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and the most dangerous, melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the slowest-growing cancer, and while squamous cell has the potential to spread to other parts of the body, it is usually slow-growing and treatable, particularly if diagnosed early."
Both can look like pink or red, scaly patches or wounds that don’t heal, and often appear on sun-exposed areas like the head, neck, ears, lips and arms. Any new growth, particularly one that bleeds or is sore, should be examined by a dermatologist right away.
Melanoma is less common than basal and squamous cell (it accounts for about 1% of skin cancer cases) but is faster growing and more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught early, says Dr. Ozog. It is the deadliest all of the skin cancers, which is why it’s important to get regular skin checks at the dermatologist (at least yearly) for irregular moles. You should also check yourself regularly for anything that looks unusual.
Warning Signs to Look For
“There’s an easy rule people can use to assess their moles for melanoma: it’s called the ABCDEs of skin cancer,” says Dr. Ozog.
- A stands for asymmetry—meaning one side of the mole doesn’t match the other.
- B is for border irregularity.
- C is for color that is not uniform.
- D is for a diameter larger than 6 mm (or bigger than a pencil eraser).
- E is for evolution, or a changing mole, which is the most important warning sign.
"Any changes in the mole could be a sign of cancer, in which case it’s important to see a dermatologist (whether virtually or in person) right away," says Dr. Ozog. “This is critical, since a new or changing small mole is more concerning than a stable, larger mole."
How To Protect Yourself
Wearing sunscreen daily on any exposed areas of the skin is important (even when driving in your car, as UVA rays can penetrate through some windows). When you’re outside, cover with sunhats and lightweight, protective clothing, especially if you’ll be outdoors for hours, Dr. Ozog says, and reapply sunscreen every two hours. If you can, it’s also a good idea to stay out of the sun between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest.
“Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, but it’s also one of the most preventable,” says Dr. Ozog. “Staying safe, protecting your skin, avoiding tanning beds, and wearing sunscreen are the most effective ways to preventing any type of skin cancer.”
To find a doctor or dermatologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). If you're in the Jackson area or south central Michigan, call 1-888-862-DOCS.
David Ozog, M.D., is the chair of the Department of Dermatology at Henry Ford Health. He sees skin cancer patients at Henry Ford Medical Center in Novi, and general dermatology patients in West Bloomfield and Detroit.