May 11, 2010 in Features

Spring is a good time for a skin self-exam

Dr. Alisa Hideg
 

Before you know it, the weather will turn warm, Spokane’s pools and splash pads will open and swimsuit season will be upon us.

Of course, the first thing most of us think about as summer approaches is how we are going to look in our swimsuits. Now that you have started thinking about your swimsuit, how about thinking about your birthday suit, too?

Unlike your swimsuit, you cannot change your skin when it starts to wear out, so keeping tabs on it and doing everything you can to keep it in good condition is important.

When people come in for physicals, one of the things we often talk about is how to perform a skin self-exam, because if you detect skin cancers early they are very curable.

The first step is to get down to your birthday suit. Next, you need to look all over (even between your toes) at your skin. Use a mirror to look at hard-to-see places like your back, the backs of your legs and the back of your neck.

Are there any new spots that were not there last time you looked? Have any familiar spots changed in shape, size or color? Are there any red, flaky bumps that will not heal?

If someone else sees your skin regularly, ask them if they have noticed any changes. If so, make an appointment with your physician to have any spots of concern checked out.

Do not put off getting spots of concern checked out. A friend of mine had an aunt who waited six months to get a spot looked at after she noticed it. Because she waited, she had a rather large piece of skin removed and had an overnight stay in the hospital for her diagnosis of melanoma; thankfully, they still got it all.

Don’t think that you are not at risk because you have darker skin. Bob Marley died from skin cancer, and the first patient I took a melanoma off of 12 years ago was Latino.

Now that I have covered how to check your skin, you might be thinking about how to protect that skin. At least I hope you are.

When you head outside to enjoy some summertime fun, keep following the three S’s of sun safety that I told you about last summer: slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat.

Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going into the sun and reapply it according to directions on the bottle.

Choose a sunscreen that says something like “broad-spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on the label. This means that it protects you from both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B light (the parts of sunlight and artificial light that cause cancer and wrinkles).

I also look for sunscreens that are waterproof or water-resistant. If waterproof and water-resistant sunscreens sometimes irritate the skin on your face, like they do to me, try a water-based sunscreen. Just remember that you will need to reapply it more often because some of it will come off when you sweat or go for a swim.

If you wear makeup every day, choose a foundation that has sunscreen in it to protect you from daily UV exposure. And if you don’t wear makeup, use a moisturizer that has sunscreen in it.

Steer clear of tanning beds. Some people think that they are safer than exposure to plain old sunshine, but they aren’t.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the amount of UVA and UVB light you are exposed to when you use a tanning bed is similar to what you would be exposed to outside and sometimes even more.

If you are unsure about how to do a skin self-exam, what to look for when doing one, or just want to know more about skin cancer and how to prevent it, the American Academy of Dermatology has a great website called melanomamonday.org.

It has detailed instructions for performing a skin self-exam, pictures of skin cancer spots, advice about sunscreen and much more.

Unfortunately, though, they don’t have advice about picking out a new swimsuit.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your questions and comments to drhideg@ghc.org.

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