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Skin Cancer: Protecting Your Skin

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Excessive exposure to the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin cancer. You can reduce your risk for skin cancer by:

  • Protecting your skin, and that of your family members, from UV radiation.
  • Performing frequent skin self-examinationsClick here to see an illustration..
  • Finding out whether you have an increased risk for melanoma and other skin cancers.

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The sunlight that reaches the earth has ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays. These ultraviolet (UV) rays are the main causes of damage to the skin from the sun. Some people are more susceptible than others to skin damage. Certain factors may mean that you have an increased risk for skin cancer:

  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • A family member with skin cancer
  • More than 50 moles
  • Abnormal moles (atypical moles), or moles larger than 6 mm (0.2 in.), about the size of a pencil eraser
  • A weakened immune system
  • Severe sunburns—even one—as a child, or sunburns as an adult
  • Living in a sunny or high-altitude climate or near the equator
  • Fair skin that burns or freckles easily and does not tan

Sunburns in childhood are the most damaging to the skin. The earlier in life that you are burned by the sun, the greater the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

Some people believe that tanning protects against a sunburn. But the amount of sun exposure needed to get a tan can by itself cause excessive skin damage and outweigh any possible benefit.

Test Your Knowledge

Answer the following questions to see whether you understand what UV radiation does to your skin.

Your chances of getting skin cancer can be decreased by limiting exposure to the sun.


One sunburn during childhood may cause skin cancer years later.


By protecting your skin, you may be able to prevent skin cancer or find it early when it can be more easily treated.

  • Exposure to the sun is the most common cause of skin cancer. Sunburns do the most damage, but sustained time in the sun increases the risk of skin damage and mole growth.
  • Most early skin cancers are easily seen on the skin and may be curable if treated early.
  • Some people have a higher risk for skin cancer. If you are aware that you have a higher risk, have regular skin exams and take steps to protect your skin.

Test Your Knowledge

Answer the following question to see whether you understand why extra steps are needed to protect your skin from the sun.

Early skin cancer can be spotted on the skin.


You can take steps to protect your skin from UV radiation. While sunscreen plays a vital role in protecting your skin from UV radiation, it can't prevent skin damage if you are exposed to the sun's rays for long periods of time. Experts recommend that you use multiple methods to fully protect your skin.

Preventing skin cancer isn't always possible. But being alert for new spots or skin growths and having your doctor check your skin regularly may help find skin cancer early when it can be more easily treated.

Protect your skin

  • Stay out of the sun during the peak hours of UV radiation, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear protective clothing:
    • Wide-brimmed hats that protect the face and neck
    • Tightly-woven clothing made of thick material, such as unbleached cotton, polyester, wool, or silk
    • Dark clothing with dyes added that help absorb UV radiation
    • Loose-fitting long-sleeved clothing that covers as much of the skin as possible
    • Clothing that has sun protection factor (SPF) in the fabric that does not wash out
  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, summer and winter, on both cloudy and clear days:
    • SPF of 11 offers minimal protection.
    • SPF of 12 to 29 offers moderate protection.
    • SPF of 30 and above offers high protection.
  • Apply sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB radiation to all exposed skin, including lips, ears, back of the hands, and neck. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going in the sun, and reapply it every 2 hours and after swimming, exercising, or sweating.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses that block at least 99% of UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Be careful when you are on sand, snow, or water, because these surfaces can reflect 85% of the sun's rays.
  • Avoid artificial sources of UVA radiation, including sunlamps and tanning booths. Like the sun, they can cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.

A child's skin is more sensitive to the sun than an adult's skin and is more easily burned. Babies younger than 6 months should always be completely shielded from the sun. Children 6 months and older should have their skin protected from too much sun exposure.

Know the ABCDEs of early detection

Skin cancer can be cured if found and treated early. If it is not discovered or treated until too late, it can spread throughout the body and may be fatal. Skin cancer often appears on the trunk of men and on the legs of women. Learn your ABCDEsClick here to see an illustration., the changes in a mole or skin growth that are warning signs of melanoma:

  • AsymmetryClick here to see an illustration.: One half doesn't match the other half.
  • Border irregularityClick here to see an illustration.: The edges are ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • ColorClick here to see an illustration.: The pigmentation is not uniform. Shades of tan, brown, and black are present. Dashes of red, white, and blue add to the mottled appearance. Color may spread from the edge of a mole into the surrounding skin.
  • DiameterClick here to see an illustration.: The size of the mole is greater than 6 mm (0.2 in.), or about the size of a pencil eraser.
  • EvolutionClick here to see an illustration.: There is a change in the size, shape, symptoms (such as itching or tenderness), surface (especially bleeding), or color of a mole.

Get to know your skin

Skin cancer, including melanoma, is curable if spotted early. A careful skin exam may identify suspicious growths that may be cancer or growths that may develop into skin cancer (precancers).

  • Examine your skinClick here to see an illustration. once every month. Get to know your moles and birthmarks. And look for any abnormal skin growth and any change in the color, shape, size, or appearance of a skin growth.
  • Check for any area of skin that does not heal after an injury.
  • Have your doctor check your skin during any other health exams. Most experts recommend having your skin examined regularly.
  • Bring any suspicious skin growths or changes in a mole to the attention of your doctor.

Test Your Knowledge

Now that you know the steps to protecting your skin, see if you understand how to make it work for you.

A suntan is a sign of good health.


You can avoid the damaging rays from the sun by getting a tan in a tanning booth.


If you are going to be out in the sun for a lengthy period of time, sunscreen is the best protection for your skin.


It is more damaging to the skin to experience long hours in the sun than to have briefer exposures when the sun is particularly intense.


Now that you know how to protect your skin from UV radiation and skin cancer, it's a good time to do a thorough skin self-examClick here to see an illustration.. Then you will be ready to talk with your doctor or a dermatologist about your skin's health, particularly if you notice any suspicious growths.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerAmy McMichael, MD - Dermatology
Last RevisedOctober 12, 2012

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