This is the first article in a two-part series focusing on skin cancer prevention and the impacts of the sun on your skin.

Did you know that every year more people are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined? Overall, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70; if you have light skin, that number goes up to 40 or 50 percent by age 65. And about 90 percent of that is due to ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure.

Skin cancer is largely preventable.

The folks at Duke Health hope you will read this article and talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your skin cancer risk. If you’ve had skin cancer, we can help you figure out what you need to do to prevent skin cancer from recurring.

What are UV rays and how do they hurt my skin?

UV light is a type of radiation. Unlike visible light, UV wavelengths are too short to be seen by the human eye. It’s what makes blacklight posters glow, and what causes you to tan or get sunburned.

Your skin has a pigment called melanin. The more melanin you have, the darker your skin tone is. UV rays damage your skin, regardless of your natural skin tone, and your body reacts by making more melanin in an attempt to protect your skin from further damage. UV rays also cause freckles after you’ve been in the sun, and wrinkles as you age.

Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

Exposure to sunlight is the biggest risk factor for skin cancer. However, there are several factors that increase your risk of skin cancer, whether you have high UV ray exposure or not.

You may have a higher skin cancer risk if you have:

  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A history of high sun exposure or blistering sunburns
  • Light skin or light-colored eyes
  • Lots of large, irregularly-shaped moles
  • A home at high altitude or with year-round sunshine
  • Received radiation treatments

What are the Warning Signs of Skin Cancer?

An early warning sign for skin cancer, known as precancerous lesions, may be red, scaly patches on your head, neck, lips, or hands. Another early warning sign is a mole that newly appears or changes over time.

You need to see your doctor right away if you have a mole that shows any of the ABCDE warning signs of precancerous or cancerous mole:

  • Asymmetry: The mole is irregular in shape. Imagine drawing a line across the middle of your mole. Does it look the same or different on each side of the line?
  • Border: The edge of the mole is ragged, irregular, notched or faded.
  • Color: A dangerous mole has dark and light shades. Or, it is a mix of several colors (black, brown, tan, red, pink, blue, white).
  • Diameter: A dangerous mole is larger than a pencil eraser or a quarter inch in diameter.
  • Evolving: A mole that changes over time is a dangerous mole. It may get larger or smaller, become raised, change colors, itch, hurt, or bleed.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming blog, “Don’t Get Overdone by the Sun: Protecting Yourself from Skin Cancer” to learn more about how you can lower your skin cancer risk.

Picture Credit: Vintage Coppertone Sunscreen Ad