15 Simple Steps That Keep Skin Cancer Out of Your Future, According to Dermatologists

Kaitlyn Pirie
·10 min read
Photo credit: Ódor Dorottya / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ódor Dorottya / EyeEm - Getty Images

This article was medically reviewed by Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board.

You might shrug off the idea of skin cancer and assume it won’t happen to you—or if it does, you’ll just have a mole removed. No big deal, right?

Not so fast. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and treatment may involve a lot more than a mole removal (a surgical procedure that may leave a scar), according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

“There’s nothing like having surgery on your face to make you really think, Okay, what’s causing this, and what can I do to prevent anything going forward?” says Alysa Herman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Coral Gables, FL, and a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation.

What’s more, skin cancer—particularly melanoma, the most serious form of the disease—can spread to other parts of the body and become fatal. While melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers, it leads to the majority of skin cancer deaths.

Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to lower your risk—and to get ahead of it early if you do show signs of the disease. To prevent skin cancer, follow these skin-saving strategies dermatologists want you to start taking ASAP.

1. First, consider your cumulative sun exposure.

Skin cancer is caused by chronic cumulative exposure, not just blasts of sun exposure here and there,” says Dr. Herman. Think about all the times you get incidental ultraviolet exposure (even on cloudy days): walking to your car, taking out the trash, strolling with your dog, running errands, driving (yes, UV rays can penetrate your windshield and car windows!).

You may not think those times outdoors “count,” but they do. “You’re getting a lot more exposure through the car and walking around than you realize, and that’s why wearing sunscreen daily is so important,” says Dr. Herman.

2. Take action no matter what color your skin is.

“Skin cancer can happen in all ethnicities, including persons of color,” says Yolanda Lenzy, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and licensed cosmetologist in Chicopee, MA. “In fact, reggae star Bob Marley died from malignant melanoma on his foot.”

While it’s true that more skin pigmentation might lower your risk of developing skin cancer, research shows that people of color die from melanoma at a higher rate than white people. On top of that, consider what sun damage can do to your skin overall, says Susan Chon, M.D., professor of dermatology at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “That may be dyspigmentation, wrinkles, or uneven color.”

Photo credit: MesquitaFMS - Getty Images
Photo credit: MesquitaFMS - Getty Images

3. Don’t assume you’re doomed.

Even if you were a devoted sunbather or lifeguard in your teens, you can still slow down the intensity or the amount of exposure you’re getting now. “It’s never too late,” says Dr. Chon. “I have patients who change their exposure and behavior, and it’s easy to see within a year that their skin looks different.” You’re not just preventing skin cancer—you’re also staving off wrinkles, sunspots, and other skin-damaging effects of UV rays.

4. Store your sunscreen next to your toothpaste.

Between feeding pets, chauffeuring kids, calling parents, buying groceries, and all of your other responsibilities, it can be hard to remember to put on sunscreen every day. Dr. Herman’s advice? Make it part of your morning routine: Keep your favorite sunscreen (one that actually works well with your skin type) near your toothpaste so you remember to slather some on after brushing your teeth.

Pro tip: Don’t forget the tops of your hands, an often-overlooked area that gets a lot of sun exposure, especially when you’re driving.

5. Use enough sunscreen.

It’s not enough to just slap a little on and call it a day. To properly and fully cover your body, the AAD says you’ll need an ounce of product—enough to fill a shot glass. For your face specifically, aim for a nickel-sized amount. While you’re at it, don’t forget your ears, neck, and the tops of your feet. “Your sunscreen should be SPF 30 or higher and, most importantly, be re-applied every 2 to 3 hours,” says Dr. Lenzy.

6. Try different sunscreen formulations.

“Every sunscreen is formulated differently so the texture is different,” says Dr. Chon. “There are so many now that I really encourage patients to try a few.” You may be surprised by how much you actually like one, especially because there are now products catered to acne-prone skin, sensitive complexions, and deeper skin tones.

If you buy one for your face but don’t love it, use it on the rest of your body (so it’s not a waste of money). It will still do its job, notes Dr. Chon.

7. Create your own shade.

Sunscreen should be your first defense against the sun’s harmful rays no matter where you are—but it shouldn’t be your only one. If you’re outside and it’s possible to step into the shade (say, under a tree or an umbrella), do it.

“It makes a huge difference,” says Dr. Chon, who also recommends using sun-protective clothing (with a UPF or “ultraviolet protection factor”) as a form of shade, especially if you’re in the sun for a long time. “A lot of brands like Athleta and Lululemon have UPF-rated clothes now.”

If you love to go running or hiking, try a rashguard. “They’re super effective and cover all those areas that are hard to reach like your shoulders, back, and neck,” says Dr. Chon.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

8. Know what to look for.

“There are three main types of skin cancer—basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma—and they can have different appearances,” says Dr. Herman. Some skin cancers can also be hard for the average person to discern as they resemble eczema, dry skin, or psoriasis.

Dr. Herman’s advice? “If you have a new growth or spot that’s changing color, growing, bleeding, not healing, seems like it’s healing and then scabs over, or seems like it went away and then comes back, those are all good indications that you need to get checked by a dermatologist,” she advises.

Dr. Lenzy recommends taking a look at your whole body (including hands and feet) at least once a month and seeing a dermatologist for a baseline screening, typically at least once a year.

9. Find a dermatologist you like.

Just like with any other health issue, if you get along with and trust your doctor, you’ll be more likely to stick to a preventive-care routine. “There’s a tool on the AAD website that’s great because you can actually search for dermatologists based on your zip code or the type of skin issue you’re having,” says Dr. Chon. Plus, she says, you can rest easy knowing everyone in the database is a board-certified dermatologist.

10. Ask your derm how often you should see them.

You should have a baseline visit with a dermatologist who can check your skin from head to toe, including hard-to-see spots like your back, scalp, and the bottoms of your feet. After that, there’s no one-size-fits all rule about how often you should return for a check-up.

“It’s really personal, depending on your family history, your personal risk factors, or your history of skin cancer,” explains Dr. Chon. “If there’s anything that you have questions about on your skin, see a dermatologist; then, you and the doctor can decide if you need regular exams.”

11. Take photos.

Trying to remember exactly what a mole or rash looked like several months ago is difficult—and trying to explain it to your doctor is even harder. If you see something concerning, take a photo of it on your smartphone. “It’s an easy way of having some sort of documented, objective data of what it looked like two months ago or a month ago so you can monitor it,” says Dr. Herman.

Patients who have a lot of moles are often referred to a professional photographer for mole mapping. The photographer will take images of the person’s entire body in specific poses so a dermatologist can detect subtle changes over time.

Photo credit: CasarsaGuru - Getty Images
Photo credit: CasarsaGuru - Getty Images

12. Don’t put off appointments.

“The sooner you see a dermatologist, the sooner you can tackle whatever issues come up together,” says Dr. Chon. That’s especially important when it comes to skin cancer. “When it’s little and it’s just starting, it’s super easy to take care of,” she points out. “If it’s early, it’s much, much better.”

She says some patients worry that they’re overreacting and wasting her time if a spot turns out to be benign, but that’s not true. “That’s my job, and that’s why I’m here,” she says. “There’s no harm in getting it checked.” Plus, unlike some other health screenings, skin checks are pretty straightforward and require no extra prep ahead of time.

13. Pay attention to what you’re eating.

There’s a reason dietitians say you should fill your plate with a mix of brightly-hued fruits and vegetables: “All of these have what we call phytonutrients—‘phyto’ meaning plants, so nutrients from plants—and antioxidants that are very protective against free radical damage in the skin,” says Dr. Herman. (Free radicals are harmful molecules from the environment that cause skin damage over time.)

She recommends eating whole foods because “they may have other nutrients that we haven’t yet learned about that may work synergistically with others that we do know about.”

Along those same lines, you might want to cut back on alcohol and keep enjoying your caffeinated coffee—two strategies that research shows might reduce your melanoma risk.

14. Ask your doc about sun-protective supplements.

If you frequently eat nutrient-rich produce in a wide array of colors, you’re already providing your body with lots of supportive vitamins and minerals. But some supplements might help kick your skin protection up a little bit.

Dr. Herman says that research currently supports two supplements. The first is Heliocare, which contains a plant extract called Polypodium leucotomos extract that may help protect your skin from free radicals. Then, there’s niacin (a B vitamin), which may reduce the risk of squamous-cell and basal-cell skin cancers. Before trying a new supplement, talk to your dermatologist to see if it make sense for you.

15. Review any medications you take.

Some medicines can cause changes in your skin that make it more sensitive to ultraviolet exposure. Common culprits include certain cholesterol meds, antibiotics, antifungals, NSAIDS, and even birth control pills. Not everyone reacts the same way to drugs, so check this list of medications from the FDA and take extra preventive steps if you happen to be taking one of them. When in doubt, make sure you go over any potential side effects with your doctor or pharmacist.

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