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Skin Cancer Awareness MonthAsk A Dermatologist: Sun Protection and Skin Cancer 

Did you know that this May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month? With diagnosed cases of skin cancer rising globally, it’s a pertinent time to take stock of our collective education and individual action around protecting ourselves and our loved ones from the consequences of sun damage.

Practising safe suncare is your first line of defence against skin cancer. This is a multifaceted approach and Skin + Me are here to explain exactly what that means for you – no surprise, it involves wearing SPF factor 30+ every single day.

Practising safe suncare is your first line of defence against skin cancer. 

Want to know the signs to look for if you’re worried about changes in your moles, skin texture, or skin cancer in general? We chatted to Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Ben Esdaile for his expert answer when it comes to sun protection (and sun damage diagnosis) know-how.

Skin + Me: What’s the definition of skin cancer and who is susceptible to skin cancer?

Dr Ben Esdaile: There are two main types of skin cancers, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.

Melanomas are cancers of the mole-producing cells in the skin (melanocytes). Non-melanoma skin cancers arise from other cells in the skin. 

The most common type of non-melanoma skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. Non-melanoma skin cancers are technically the commonest type of cancer in the world. 

Most non-melanoma skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun. The ultraviolet light (UVB and UVA) causes damage to the genetic material of cells (DNA).  Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and the number of people being diagnosed keeps on increasing. 

Your risk for developing melanoma depends on a number of factors including genetics and environmental factors. The most significant risk factor is exposure to too much ultraviolet radiation (usually from the sun or sunbeds). 

Sunburn increases your risk of melanoma and people who have used a sunbed have an increased risk of melanoma. Your genetics are also important in regards to developing melanoma. The more easily your skin tends to burn in the sun (this applies especially to fair skin or red hair), the higher your risk. There are also other genetic factors for melanomas and if you have a close relative with melanoma your risk is also higher.

Skin + Me: We’re all about staying out of the sun at peak times, covering up and using SPF 30+ when it comes to safe suncare. Prevention is better than cure, right? Tell us more.

Dr Ben Esdaile: As mentioned before, the most important controllable risk factor for skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation exposure from the sun and sunbeds. Ultraviolet radiation is produced naturally by the sun and artificially through sunbeds. 

“The most important controllable risk factor for skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation exposure from the sun and sunbeds.”

The sun produces both UVA and UVB radiation. The UVB causes burning of the skin and can also damage the DNA in skin cells potentially leading to skin cancer. The UVA penetrates deeper in the skin and is responsible for damaging the skin scaffolding and causes skin wrinkling, accelerated skin-ageing as well as potentially skin cancer. 

As sunburn increases the risk of skin cancer, the most important skin cancer prevention advice is to protect your skin from sunburn.

This can be achieved with the right clothing (e.g appropriate clothes and hats) and good broad-spectrum (against UVA and B) sunscreen. During sunny days, the background UVA is high most of the day. The UVB levels tend to rise at around midday, so taking extra care between 11am and 3pm is important. 

In Australia, they had a campaign that said, ‘Between 11 and 3, slip under a tree’. Good sun protection also has other benefits of helping to prevent skin-ageing (UVA damage to the important scaffolding proteins) and unwanted skin pigmentation.

“As sunburn increases the risk of skin cancer, the most important skin cancer prevention advice is to protect your skin from sunburn.”

Skin + Me: When should you consult a dermatologist or doctor if you’re worried about your skin? What are the signs to look out for?

Dr Ben Esdaile: In terms of recognising melanoma, there are a few important things to be aware of. 

About two-thirds of melanomas arise on normal skin and the most common way melanoma presents is a new mole that often looks different from your other moles. 

Melanomas can also arise within existing moles and so a significant change in an existing mole is also something to look out for. 

The earlier melanoma is found, the easier it is to treat, so if you have concerns it’s important to see your GP or dermatologist as soon as possible. 

The melanoma ABCDE checklist

A useful checklist for spotting melanoma is the ABCDE checklist.

A stands for Asymmetrical. Melanomas often have an uneven shape. 

B stands for Border. Melanomas often have an irregular edge or border. 

C stands for Colour. Melanomas tend to have a number of different colours within them (brown, black, pink, blue). 

D stands for Diameter. Melanomas will tend to grow and become larger. They’re often not picked up when they’re small and tend to be larger than 6mm.

E stands for Evolving. Melanomas will grow and change shape. 

Non-melanoma skin cancers tend to be pink nodules but occasionally they can have some colour (pigment). They are often initially thought to be an insect bite but tend to grow rather than disappear. They can sometimes be quite tender, often bleed and never fully heal. It’s worth also getting these checked by your doctor.

Medical facts checked by Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Ben Esdaile 

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