Summer might be over, but worrying about sun safety is not. The sun's rays don't quit once the warmer months wrap, which means protection should also be top of mind year round. Along with daily sunscreen application, it's important to receive a full body exam from a dermatologist to check for irregular moles—the result of unsafe exposure—annually, says Dr. Purvisha Patel, dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. But if you are at a higher risk of skin cancer, you'll want to up the frequency.
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"Risk factors for getting more frequent checks include fair skin, a personal history of skin cancer, history of skin cancer in the family, and a history of sunburns before the age of 16," Patel says. Also, if you have a history of dysplastic moles—the kind that look atypical under a microscope—you should get them evaluated by your dermatologist every six months, she adds. It's also a good idea to be personally aware of potential warning signs in your skin—signs that tell you to go to a dermatologist right away and not wait for your regular full-body check. "If you notice a change in your skin that is not getting better, it is imperative to get your skin checked," Dr. Patel says, citing changes in moles and skin lesions (like darkening, bleeding, tenderness, redness or peeling when exposed to the sun, or changes in shape or symmetry) as warning signs of potential cancer.
There are three different types of skin cancer we're all at risk for: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. "Basal cell carcinomas are the 'best' type of skin cancer to have, should you have one," Dr. Patel says. "They are slow growing tumors of the basal cell layer of the skin. They generally do not have the ability to spread into the bloodstream or lymph nodes. They can spread down and follow nerves and blood vessels locally." They can grow for years without declaring themselves, she adds, often appearing as pink bumps or patchy dry skin that doesn't heal.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, Dr. Patel says. "They start as precancerous actinic keratosis and then grow progressively. They can become quite aggressive and spread down nerves and blood vessels, and can spread to lymph nodes and metastasize." They generally present as tender or non-healing skin bumps, scaly patches, and ulcerations, she says.
The most dangerous kind of skin cancer is melanoma, Dr. Patel explains, and a system called the ABCDs is used to help detect it: A (asymmetry), B (borders are irregular), C (changing colors), D (diameter; the mole is bigger than a pencil eraser), and E (evolving; the mole is changing). "If you notice more than two of these guidelines, it's important to see a dermatologist," Dr. Patel says. And if you've had a skin cancer before—whether basal, squamous, or melanoma—see your doctor at least every six months for preventive checks.