Memorial Day weekend is the official start of summer - on the beaches, at the amusement parks, and in the hearts, minds and backyards of Americans. It also falls at the end of Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
Before heading out into the sunshine, take a moment to think about protecting the largest organ of the body against cancer.
And while basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma make up 96 percent of skin cancers, the American Cancer Society found malignant melanoma is responsible for 79 percent of skin cancer deaths.
The median age of diagnosis for melanoma is between 45 and 55, but 25 percent of cases occur in individuals younger than 40. The rates amongst younger people are even more shocking. It is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 25 to 30.
And if the threat of cancer is not scary enough, there is also an appeal to vanity. Ninety percent of aging is due to daily sun exposure.
But there is no need to hunker down in the recesses of a dark room during summer, because melanoma is completely curable when diagnosed early, according to Dr. Linda K. Franks, director of Gramercy Park Dermatology and clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine.
Franks offers these five tips to enjoy summer without sacrificing your skin:
#1. Take Cover!
Franks says people do not need to avoid the sun all together, in fact, she points out, it is imperative - especially in northern latitudes - for creating Vitamin D. But you should never be unprotected during the middle of the day, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., she advises.
And that white t-shirt at the beach for cover-up, think again.
"A white t-shirt only affords you a SPF (sun protection factor) 4, and if you're fair and you think you're getting coverage you aren’t. On the beach this isn’t going to go very far.
You either need sunscreen clothing, or a tighter weave, or darker colors. There's a product you can use in the washing machine, called SunGuard, it actually washes UV protection into your clothing," Franks said.
As for making Vitamin D, it only takes 10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure, so a quick walk in the morning or early evening is plenty of exposure. Many fortified foods, especially dairy products, are a good way to get Vitamin D as well.
#2. SPF: Get it Right
Currently, SFP only refers to the ultra-violet B (UVB) protection. Franks points out that UVB is more responsible for causing skin cancer, because it directly affects DNA and cells, but "UVA is longer wavelengths and gets deeper into skin, causing free radicals, and gets into the collagen and makes wrinkles, and it also plays a role in skin cancer."
Until the Food and Drug Administration changes the guidelines for SPF, everyone should seek broad-spectrum protection, meaning that the bottle must say that it protects against both UVA and UVB.
Franks recommends Neutrogena products with helioplex, as well as Anthelios, a product only currently available in the U.S. in an SPF 15 by L'oreal, but is available in Europe and Canada in higher a SPF. The physical blockers, such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide also offer full-spectrum protection.
"You need a full ounce to cover your body, think of a shot glass," she said. "Many studies show people aren't putting on enough, if you're not using enough, an SPF 30 is more like a 10 or 15."
Franks tells all her patients, men and women, to take a large glob of a lotion or moisturizer, such as Olay Complete, and put it on your face, and then put the rest on your neck and back of the hands, where sun exposure is most frequent.
#3. Know the Signs
Franks echoes the cry of most dermatologists, urging everyone to have a yearly mole check by a dermatologist, no matter what your age.
But in between the annual appointment, and especially for those who do not make time for doctors, "every few months after the shower just look at yourself naked," Franks tells her patients.
"It's very simple - don't worry about the esoteric things - just look for anything that's abnormal, what stands out from the background, anything larger, darker? Is it black? Is it bleeding? Is it bruising?"
Everyone should look out for moles on their upper back, and women have a higher instance of melanoma on their legs because they tend to be exposed more in skirts and shorts.
Franks was quick to note that men more often die of melanoma. "More men die from melanoma," she said. "Usually, at time of diagnosis, melanoma is thicker in a man."
Men should not hesitate to get an abnormal mole checked out, and all men should use a facial SPF as part of their shaving routine - just keep a bottle next to their shaving cream and dab some on your face after shaving.
#4. Get to Know a Dermatologist
If you have a mole or freckle that looks weird, or if you see something growing on your husband, wife, lover, mother, brother, sister, father, or even a coworker, do not wait to see a dermatologist.
"The biggest point is that if melanoma is found early, it is completely curable with easy surgery," Franks said.
Some doctors employ only a trained eye to look for abnormalities, but many dermatologists also use an ultra violet lamp that looks at the deeper pigment. Franks said this allows doctors to "look for little white halo around moles, that can be the body's response around a mole that is changing."
One of the biggest misconceptions is what to expect from a biopsy on a mole. It is simple and almost painless, a fact this author can attest to. It is non-invasive and only takes a few minutes.
#5 - Take In and Slather On Antioxidants
Franks said that while a good diet in fruits and vegetables will help fight against most cancers, it is difficult to get a good dose of oral antioxidants out to your skin.
She recommends a topical vitamin C serum as a second level of defense. "And the beauty of a good vitamin C product is it will build up a good level of protection in your body," Franks said. "If you just go out for little while in the morning and forget to put on some sun screen, you have some inherent protection that can help you."
Franks concluded that no one should have to be a hermit. Sunburns and tanning booths, which are nothing but harmful UVA rays, are some of the worse things that can happen to anyone's skin.
People with light eyes, light skin, anyone with more than three sunburns in their lifetime are all at increased risk. The most important thing to remember, she says, is this is a curable cancer.
Regular check-ups mean that melanoma, at any age, does not have to be a death sentence.
This article was reviewed by Dr. Manny Alvarez.