Summer is right around the corner, and we can finally bask in the glorious sunshine. While sunlight gives us vitamin D and boosts our happiness, it can also increase our risk of skin cancer if we’re not careful. But there's good news!
Now is the perfect time to raise awareness of skin cancer and learn more about protecting our skin. Thanks to dermatopathologist Dr. Hina Sheikh, who specializes in diagnosing disorders of the skin, we have expert guidance to answer our top questions about skin health.
Check your skin
Dr. Sheikh encourages everyone to become familiar with their skin and embrace its beauty. “Skin is so obvious. It is an incredible part of our identity and ethnicity, and it is one of the first things that other people see when they look at us. By performing regular skin checks, we can notice changes, no matter how small or unusual they may seem.”
A monthly self-exam to inspect the skin, and an annual exam performed by a doctor, can help detect new, changing, or unusual lesions - including little bumps, ulcerations, plaques, or pigmented (darkened) areas- which may be the first signs of skin cancer. Taking care of your skin is important because it matters- cancer treatment can lead to surgery and might even affect your appearance.
Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, the two most common forms of skin cancer, are often found in the head and neck area, as well as frequently exposed parts of arms and legs. But, according to Dr. Sheikh, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to skin cancer. Sun exposure in childhood can result in pigmented lesions all over the body- and not all types of skin cancer are caused by the sun.
“Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer that can affect younger patients and it is more likely to metastasize (spread throughout the body). Non-sun exposure melanoma occurs more frequently in pigmented skin, making skin cancer awareness and prevention important for all skin types.” Drawing from her passion for music, Dr. Sheikh connects her expertise on skin cancer to Bob Marley, who passed away from melanoma when he was just 36 years old. “Bob Marley was darker skinned like me. There was a small pigmentation under his nail that he unfortunately dismissed as a soccer injury. It is important for everyone to be aware of changes in their skin, even small or unusual changes.”
Protect your skin
Dr. Sheikh recommends enjoying the sun sensibly and with protection, especially between 10 am and 4 pm when the rays are at their peak. In addition to protective clothing such as hats and sunglasses with UPF (ultraviolet protective factor), wearing sunscreen is an effective way to protect our skin.
“It is important to use sunscreen even in the car. UVA/UVB rays can still harm the skin, especially through side windows which do not protect from the sun.” The best sunscreen is the one used every day and reapplied, with SPF 15 sufficient for daily use, and SPF 30 or higher recommended for extended outdoor activities.
Sunburns in childhood increase the risk of serious skin cancer, and babies should be kept away from direct sunlight for the first 6 months. After 6 months, sunscreen should be used and reapplied to protect from sunburn. “For those with a history of sunburns, early detection is the next strategy. Be more vigilant about checking your skin. Do your best; it is never too late to start.” Along with regular skin checks, everyone can adopt a skincare regimen to protect themselves from the sun.
Love your skin
An overlooked method of skin care is simple: Love your skin! Changing your skin tone is unnecessary; suntanning and bleaching agents should be discouraged. “Suntanning is like smoking. It ages the skin and tremendously increases the risk of skin cancer.” Similarly, bleaching agents damage the skin.
Dr. Sheikh encourages everyone to accept and appreciate their unique, natural skin. “Growing up in Pakistan gave me insecurities about my skin color. Beauty needs to be more inclusive. People can be dark and beautiful, as well as fair and beautiful. Embrace and protect your natural skin. We are all born with beautiful skin!”
It is never too late to begin a skincare regimen that includes regular skin checks and dermatological exams. Boosting the immune system by staying healthy and living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent cancer, too.
Dr. Sheikh is passionate about skin health and urges readers to care for their skin properly. “Invest in your skin,” she says, “it is going to represent you for a long time.” Schedule an exam with your dermatologist today! For more information about skin cancer, check out The Skin Cancer Foundation’s website. And don’t forget to perform regular checks on your beautiful skin!