Sun-Damaged Skin: Now What?

How to avoid cancer when your skin has seen plenty of sun damage.

By Karen Asp

The remembrance of rays gone by greets you in the mirror each morning. What now?

First, don’t panic. Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), if detected and treated early, have a 95 percent cure rate, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Melanoma has a five-year survival rate of 99 percent if treated early.

So check your skin regularly. If you spot changes or anything unusual, see a dermatologist. Have your doctor do an annual skin check, especially if you’re fair-skinned or have a personal or family history of skin cancer, says AAD spokesperson Joshua Fox, MD. You may even be able to find a free exam.

What to look for. Pearly papules or red patches can indicate BCC. SCC is characterized by crusty skin with a red base. Both are typically found on sun-exposed areas. For melanoma, think ABCD: asymmetrical shape, borders irregular, color variances, and diameter larger than a pencil eraser.

The best prevention is avoidance. Stay out of the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Cover your skin with dark, tightly woven clothing. Always use sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15 (make sure it blocks both UVA and UVB). Look for products made with Helioplex or ingredients like Mexoryl SX, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide to ensure broad protection.

To reverse damage. If you have visible signs (such as leathery skin), ablative and non-ablative laser treatments as well as cosmeceutical creams — many of which are available over the counter — may help.

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2008 as "Saving Your Skin."

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