Suddenly seeking sunscreen? UV light poses year-round peril

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Suddenly seeking sunscreen? UV light poses year-round peril

A reminder to protect your body's largest organ with sunscreen, clothing, good sense

Residents of the often-gray Pacific Northwest have happily embraced the sun's recent, if tenuous, return. The sudden springtime search for sunscreen, however, belies the fact that ultraviolet (UV) light showers us year-round. 

“I always remind my patients that the skin is the largest organ of our body,” said Dr. Prachi Munshi, an internal medicine physician who practices at the UW Neighborhood Woodinville Clinic. “It’s everywhere, so we have to think about how to protect it.”

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. One person dies every hour of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Millions are treated each year for non-melanoma cases of skin cancer, such as basal cell carcinoma.

(Click to enlarge.) Any such signs should prompt a visit with a physician.
guidelines for self-examination of skin for signs of cancer

Many skin cancers can be prevented or detected early and treated effectively, Munshi said. Keys to success are sun protection, self-exams and regular skin checks by a healthcare professional.  

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends doing a monthly self-exam. Concentrate on sun-exposed areas such as the hairline, tip of the nose, raised area of cheeks and exposed surfaces on the arms and back. Check for the following:

  • A new mole (that looks different from your other moles)
  • A new red or darker color flaky patch that may be a little raised
  • A new flesh-colored firm bump
  • A change in the size, shape, color or feel of a mole
  • A sore that doesn’t heal

A non-melanoma cancer may appear as a lesion that is flesh-colored or pink, raised with pearly appearance, or as an open sore with central crust or bleeding. Scaly and bumpy skin can be a sign of “actinic keratosis,” a growth caused by long-term sun exposure that can eventually become a squamous-cell cancer.

You can take steps to protect yourself, and not just on the fleeting sunny days. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher. Limit exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is most intense. Cover your arms and legs and wear a hat to shade your face, head, ears and neck. Skip the tanning booth. 

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force said last year that insufficient evidence exists to characterize the benefit of annual screenings and self-exams – but that doesn’t mean you should skip these routines, said Dr. Michi Shinohara, a dermatologist and dermatopathologist at UW Medicine.

“We don’t know enough to say definitively that screenings save lives,” she said. “We do know that we can’t find cancer if we don’t look.”

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about "Melanoma Monday."