Using a hand mirror, examine your skin every month for any irregular spots, freckles or moles.
Melanomas: Looking for the ABCD's (asymmetry, uneven borders, variegated color or large diameter) in moles is standard, but now experts want you to also focus on E for evolving. "We're picking up melanomas much earlier, when they're so small you can't really see borders and colors," says Dr. Wang. Any change in a mole needs to be checked by a dermatologist.
Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinomas: Non-melanomas come in many shapes and sizes. Look for an open sore that never quite heals, a reddish patch, a shiny pink or pearly bump, a pink growth with an indented center, a waxy white or yellow scar-like area, or thick, rough, scaly patches.
Actinic Keratosis (also called Solar Keratosis): You may feel these scaly or crusty sandpaper-like growths before you see them. They are believed to be precancerous versions of squamous cell carcinomas, so you'll probably want to have them treated.
Dysplastic Nevi (Atypical Moles): While they clinically look similar to melanomas, these moles are benign. But the more of them you have, the greater your risk of developing melanoma, so see your dermatologist regularly.
Age Spots (Solar Lentigines or Liver Spots): These flat or slightly raised gray, tan or brown spots sometimes resemble a cluster of freckles and are benign. "People with numerous age spots might have a lot of skin damage from the sun, but there are no studies showing that they increase a person's risk of skin cancer," says Dr. Wang.
Reversing the Damage
If your skin is freckled, sallow or wrinkled from too much sun exposure, you can remove the damage and possibly also lower your risk of cancer.
Tretinoin Topical (Brand Names Retin-A, Renova and Others): Approved for treating various skin conditions including acne and fine facial wrinkles, this prescription retinoid cream may also have an added benefit. Some dermatologists believe retinoids (the acidified form of vitamin A) could prevent skin cancer when paired with a broader regimen of sun protection and avoidance.
Chemical Peels: In addition to rejuvenating sun-damaged skin, peels can eliminate actinic keratosis, says Chad Prather, M.D., surgical director of the Louisiana State University department of dermatology. Treatment with trichloroacetic acid has been shown to significantly reduce these rough, dry patches and lower the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers. "The chemicals strip away the sun-damaged epidermal layers and precancerous lesions," says Dr. Prather. Superficial at-home peels or light ones done in a spa setting are not deep enough to slow the progression of actinic keratosis.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.