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Protect Your Skin This Summer

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States.  Your skin is the largest organ of your body; and its functions are to protect you from heat, sunlight, injury, and infection; control your body temperature; and store water, fat, and vitamin D.  Considering all that your skin does for you, it’s important to take care of it and prevent skin cancer as much as possible.

There are different types of skin cancer, but the most common occur in three types of cells in the epidermis, which is the top layer of the skin. They are:

  • Squamous cells - the thin, flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis.  Cancer that forms in these cells is called squamous cell carcinoma. 

  • Basal cells - the round cells underneath the squamous cells.  Cancer in these cells is called basal cell carcinoma. 

    • Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are called non-melanoma skin cancer and are the most common forms of skin cancer. Most basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can be cured.

  • Melanocytes - which are found in the lower part of the epidermis. They make the pigment (melanin) that gives your skin its color.  When exposed to the sun, melanocytes create more pigment, causing the skin to tan.  Cancer in these cells is called melanoma, which is the least common type of skin cancer but the most dangerous.  Melanoma is more likely to invade nearby tissue and metastasize to other parts of the body.  Although this type of skin cancer is very serious, if diagnosed early enough, it's usually curable.

Risk Factors

Certain people are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer, such as:

  • Those who have had long-term exposure to sunlight or artificial light such as tanning beds.

  • Having a fair complexion, especially if it freckles and burns easily and doesn’t tan; having light-colored eyes; having red or blond hair.

  • Having a history of many blistering sunburns.

  • Having many moles.

  • Having a family history of unusual moles.

  • Having a family or personal history of melanoma.

  • Having actinic keratosis (a precancerous skin condition).

  • Past treatment with radiation.

  • Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic in contaminated water or workplace (linked to an increased risk of skin cancer).

So What Can You Do?

  • Avoid long periods of time in the sun, especially when it’s at its strongest.  The downside to this is that you may become low in vitamin D.  If so, speak with your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement.

  • Wear sunscreen to protect your skin from UV radiation.  There are many brands of sunscreen on the market, and unfortunately, many of the popular ones are toxic.  Check the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to see how your sunscreen rates.  They also list ones that aren’t toxic.

  • Wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, sun hats, and sunglasses when outdoors. If you can't completely cover up, then use sunscreen on exposed areas.

  • Check your skin periodically.  Look for any new, expanding, or changing growth or spot; a sore that bleeds or doesn't heal after a few weeks; a rough or scaly red patch that might crust or bleed; a wart-like growth; a mole or other spot that's new or changing in size, shape, or color; or a mole with irregular borders or has areas of different colors. Bring any concerns to your doctor’s attention, or see a dermatologist to have your skin checked.  Recently, one of our local hospitals offered free skin cancer screening, so I took advantage of it and found out that my skin looks great. Check if there are any skin cancer screenings in your area.  



anatomyoftheskin.jpg, 2008, Terese Winslow


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