The sun worshippers are out in force. And every year, no matter how much public awareness is raised, some people still insist on intentionally increasing their cancer risk. Skin cancer is no joke: It can be fatal—and it is largely preventable.
There are various types of skin cancer, and some are more potentially dangerous than others. “A basal cell carcinoma is a cancer from the most basic cell in the skin. It’s the cell that goes on to create the skin that we feel on the outside (squamous cells), hair follicles, oil glands and sweat glands. A basal cell carcinoma has the least metastatic potential of all skin cancers,” explains Dr. Hank Clever, a dermatologist with First Capitol Dermatology and on staff at SSM St. Joseph Health Center.
When caught early, basal cell carcinoma is treatable through surgery, radiation or medication. However, that doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly or ignored. “Despite their low malignant potential, they can be very aggressive locally,” Clever says. “When allowed to progress, they can destroy large areas of skin, including entire noses, ears and even invade into the eye socket. The larger they get, the more difficult they are to remove. The repair of the ensuing defect can require significant cosmetic reconstruction.”
Squamous cell carcinoma is another common type of skin cancer. It originates in cells that form the epidermis or top layer of skin. Like basal cell carcinoma, early detection and treatment is key since squamous cell carcinoma can metastasize to nearby lymph nodes or more distant sites, causing serious medical issues.
The most fearsome type of skin cancer is melanoma, which forms in the pigment-producing skin cells. “Melanomas are particularly dangerous. They can be small and relatively short-lived, yet still metastasize to other areas,” Clever says. “When caught early, they are readily treatable by surgical means. However, if they invade even beyond one millimeter deep into the skin, they have the ability to move to other areas, most especially the liver, lungs and brain.”
All forms of skin cancer create a new skin lesion. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas usually look pink or red, and may be scaly or bleed. Melanoma more often looks like a mole, sometimes even forming on existing moles. “Any new mole that arises after the age of 20 or any mole that is changing from one month to the next should be examined by a physician,” Clever says.
Despite knowing what to look for and when to see a doctor, prevention is the most important message. And the key to prevention: sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen.
Asked about the benefits various types of sunscreens—natural versus synthetic, for instance—Dr. Joseph Muccini, a dermatologist with Mid-America Skin Health and Vitality Center, is adamant: Just use one. “Failure to use a good sunscreen, of whatever type, including synthetics, is clearly way more dangerous because of the amount of DNA damage that is guaranteed from UV exposure, compared to not using it,” he says.
Muccini emphasizes the benefits of a full-spectrum sunscreen and notes that most people fail to use sunscreen to maximum effectiveness. “People don’t put their sunscreen on 20 minutes before going into the sun and they usually don’t use enough,” he says. A full ounce of sunscreen is recommended to cover the body when swimming or spending time outside in shorts and sleeveless shirts. And Muccini adds that no matter what level SPF your sunscreen boasts on the label, all sunscreens need to be reapplied every couple of hours.
As far as worrying about synthetic sunscreen soaking into the skin and entering the bloodstream, Muccini notes that rubbing the compound on your skin is not like digesting it. “It’s not the same as eating it,” he says. “Your digestive system is designed for absorption. In order to absorb something in large amounts through the skin (such as transdermal medications), you have to do something specific to make it happen. Sunscreens are formulated to stay on the skin’s surface.”
So don’t worry about poisoning yourself with sunscreen. Instead, protect yourself from a far worse fate. Remember, porcelain is precious, but adobe is just mud.