5 Ways to Avoid Skin Cancer

Your doctor is probably doing more than slathering on SPF to fight UV rays—and you can too. Plus, dermatologists answer questions and the best sunscreen by skin type.

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5 Ways to Avoid Cancer

skin cancer

Illustration by Agathe Sorlet

Illustration by Agathe Sorlet

Build your immunity
A strong immune system not only helps keep colds at bay but also reduces the incidence of skin cancer, says Pedram Gerami, MD, director of the Skin Cancer Institute of Northwestern Medicine. Data shows people with suppressed immune systems can often have higher rates of skin cancer for that reason. Gerami suggests maintaining a healthy weight, exercising four to five hours per week and eating a balanced diet to enhance your immunity. If possible, avoid excessive stress, poor nutrition and lack of sleep, which all wreak havoc on your body’s ability to defend itself. 

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Sunscreen

Cover up 
Wearing UV-protective clothing means you don’t have to bother endlessly reapplying sunscreen to your body while hanging out at a family barbecue or in your own backyard, says Susan Weinkle, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida. Forget the one-size-fits-all garb of yesteryear. These days protective clothing comes in modern cuts, colors and patterns—even cute dresses. While some brands, including Patagonia and Coolibar, specify a garment’s Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), even regular clothing made from thicker and darker fabrics can shield you from the sun. In general, synthetic fibers such as Lycra, polyester, nylon and acrylic offer a higher level of protection than bleached cotton, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Get your vitamin fix 
For people who are prone to cancerous skin lesions, Gerami stands by one supplement: nicotinamide. “Patients with non-melanoma skin cancers in clinical studies experienced a lower number of skin cancers with nicotinamide, resulting in fewer surgeries,” says Gerami. In fact, this form of vitamin B-3 reduced the rate of some skin cancers by 23% compared with a placebo in one study. Gerami recommends asking your doctor about taking 500 mg twice daily (available at health food stores).

Fill your plate with color
Eating fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E may help prevent skin cancer by slowing the process of DNA and cellular damage, according to research. Data on the topic is limited, but it certainly
can’t hurt to consume more healthy produce. Cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and winter squash are all rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C while almonds, sunflower seeds and green leafy vegetables are high in vitamin E.

Opt for the right kind of shade
Whether you’re hosting a picnic or taking a break on a hike, look for large areas where the sky is less visible, especially between the hours of  10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat is also smart. Shade alone cannot provide adequate protection from the sun because indirect UV rays can be reflected by anything from concrete to grass, but it does make a big difference in keeping skin safe, says Weinkle.

—Alina Dizik

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Dermatologists Answer Your (Sun) Burning Questions

sunscreen while swimming

Photos by Getty Images

Photos by Getty Images

What exactly is skin cancer?
It’s the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. “Unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells—most often caused by UV radiation—triggers mutations that lead the cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors,” says Amy Wechsler, MD, a dermatologist and spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation.

How can you tell if a lesion is not just a regular mole?
“I often have patients tell me that a skin lesion is flat so it must be OK,” says Jennifer DeFazio, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “This is not true—early melanomas are often not raised.” She suggests using this memory trick: Do U C melanoma?

  • D= Different Does the lesion appear different from other spots on your skin?
  • U= Uneven Is it uneven in shape, color, texture or border?
  • C= Change Is it new or changing in size, color, shape or texture?

What recent advances are there in treatment?
Mohs micrographic surgery, in which layers of skin are removed individually, is the most effective option for non-melanoma skin cancer. “For advanced melanoma, immunotherapy drugs work by helping the patient’s immune system identify and attack cancerous cells,” says Wechsler. “Targeted oral therapies attack specific types of cancer cells without killing healthy cells.”

What is a common myth?
“That only light-skinned people get skin cancer. It can affect anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or skin tone,” says Wechsler. In fact, people with darker skin often present the most advanced cases.

—Kaitlyn Pirie

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Personalized Protection

sunscreen products

Don’t just buy the first bottle you see. Find the best sunscreen for your skin type.

If you have skin of color 
When you opt for a mineral sunscreen, make sure it has a tinting agent called iron oxide, says Maritza I. Perez, MD. That ingredient ensures the sunscreen won’t look chalky on your skin and protects you against visible light, which can cause hyperpigmentation. Consider these mineral and chemical options: La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Sunscreen, Neutrogena Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF50 and SkinMedica Essential Defense Everyday Clear SPF47. 

If you have fair skin 
You want a sunscreen that you like and will wear. Religiously. “Your biggest concerns are skin cancer and the aging process,” says Steven Q. Wang, MD. “You don’t have the melanin to absorb and block out ultraviolet rays, so your collagen breaks down more quickly.” But you can reduce the likelihood of precancerous lesions by consistently using sunscreen. Consider Epionce Daily Shield Lotion Tinted SPF50, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Sunscreen and Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch SPF50.

If you have dry skin 
Choose separate moisturizers (applied first) and sunscreens (applied second), says Perez. Want one product that can do it all? Try ProX by Olay Age Repair Lotion SPF30 and Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream SPF30.

If you have acne-prone skin and/or wear makeup daily 
“Pick a noncomedogenic sunscreen that’s light in texture. You want something lotion-based instead of something heavy, thick or oily, which could clog your pores,” says Wang. “The higher the SPF, the oilier and harder to use the product tends to be.” Look at Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid-Lotion Sunscreen SPF55 and Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF50.

If you have sensitive skin 
Some people have allergies and photosensitivity to avobenzone, an ingredient commonly found in chemical sunscreens. Avoid it if you are prone to rashes and concerned about a reaction. Try CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion SPF30 or Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF50+.

—Lynya Floyd

Sources: Valerie D. Callender, MD, medical director of the Callender Dermatology & Cosmetic Center in Glenn Dale, MD; Debra Jaliman, MD, author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist; Maritza I. Perez, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in NYC; Steven Q. Wang, MD, a New Jersey dermatologist and spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation.