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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Sun Worshipers Should Pick a Safer Idol

Sun Worshipers Should Pick a Safer Idol

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wed, Jun. 21, 2006

By Thomas Paige, MD

A YOUNG WOMAN came in to my office to get a wart removed from the bottom of her foot and made a casual remark that may have saved her life.

She asked, just as she was about to leave, "can you take a quick look at this dark spot on my leg?" It's a good thing she mentioned it because the spot turned out to be melanoma - an aggressive form of skin cancer that can kill.

Since the 1960s, melanoma has been increasing among fair-complexioned people. One theory is that people are spending more time in the sun and wearing less clothing. Tanning beds also are contributors and have been linked to an increased risk of melanoma.

Exposure to sunlight (solar radiation) is one of the main risk factors for melanoma, along with hereditary and other environmental causes.

Because exposure to sun is a cause we can control, it's imperative that people practice good skin health habits by protecting their skin from sunlight.

Studies show that people are more likely to get skin cancer if they've had several bad sunburns before the age of 20. So start young.

Follow the Australia jingle "slip, slap, slop," meaning slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, and slop on sunscreen before going outside. This is very good advice.

To help prevent skin cancer, follow these tips:

  • Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin when outside. Makeup and moisturizers with SPF15 are OK for everyday protection, but use at least SFP30 for outside activities like sports or gardening.
  • Wear sunscreen even if you have a tan. Tans only provide a SPF of 4 to 6, not to mention that tanning prematurely ages your skin.
  • You also can protect your skin with clothing. Light colors and tight-knit fabrics like cotton work well and some outdoor clothing comes with extra SPF built into the fabric.
  • Protect your skin even when driving. Harmful rays can travel through glass.
  • Avoid excess sun by exercising outdoors or gardening before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
  • Use bronzers if you want to look tan, but be aware most don't provide any sunscreen protection.
  • If you have a lot of moles, take photos of them and check for changes periodically. Notify your health provider if you notice any significant changes.

Benign moles can get scratched and scab but they will return to normal. Melanoma typically has irregular borders and varying colors, are bigger than a pencil eraser, and change and grow.

Women tend to get melanoma on their legs and men on the middle of their backs, though we aren't sure why.

Basal cell is a more common but less serious skin cancer, which appears as a pearly, pimple-like bump that can form a crust, and usually occurs on the face, often on the nose.

Melanoma is a particularly bad cancer, but it is often treatable if caught early. In its early stages, melanoma can be surgically removed.

If the cancer has spread, more intense treatment is necessary and may be unsuccessful. So don't wait to consult a health provider if you have a suspicious spot or mole.

And if you're a sun worshiper, consider finding a safer idol.

Paige is a dermatologist at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and has been practicing for 38 years.

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