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Health Matters: Why Your Skin Hates the Beach

Things to do this summer: wear sunblock, check your moles, see a dermatologist

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A day at the beach is often considered the ultimate leisure activity, but for our skin, a day at the beach is no fun at all. And for people with fair skin and freckles, too much time basking in the sun can be downright dangerous.

“When you are sunburned,” says Niels Krejci, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine, “the genetic material in the skin cells is mutated and the cancerous cells can arise.”

Skin cancer is far and away is the most common type of cancer: each year, one million Americans are diagnosed with one of three types of the disease: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. While it grows relatively slowly, untreated basal cell carcinoma can extend below the skin and invade bones and nerves. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common type of skin cancer, is a cause for greater concern, because it can spread more quickly to other parts of the body. Still, if basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are caught early and treated, there is a 95 percent chance of being cured.

Malignant melanoma, which kills about 8,000 people a year, is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 108,000 people are diagnosed with this fast-spreading cancer each year. Even with melanoma, however, early treatment greatly increases the likelihood that it will be cured, but early treatment requires early detection.

The AAD advises seeing a doctor if you find a mole that changes, itches, bleeds, or suddenly appears — no matter the size — and also to make a habit of monthly self- inspections and annual exams with a dermatologist.

One way to check yourself is the ABCD mole test, recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology:

“A” stands for asymmetry. This means half of a mole doesn’t match the other half in size, shape, color, or thickness.

“B” stands for border irregularity. Check to see if the mole’s edges are ragged, scalloped, or poorly defined.

“C” stands for color. See a doctor if the mole is not all the same color — for example, if shades of tan, black, and brown are present, or if there is red, white, or blue color in the mole.

“D” stands for diameter. Moles should be no greater than six millimeters in diameter, or about the size of a pencil eraser.

In the summer, apply sunscreen vigorously half an hour before you go outside, even on cloudy days. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, and look for sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, even more frequently if you’ve been swimming or sweating. Mid-morning until mid-afternoon is when the sun is strongest, so it’s a good time to sit indoors or under an umbrella. Krejci recommends wearing protective clothing, such as a wide-brim hat, sunglasses, and a T-shirt. Don’t forget that a T-shirt, while covering you up, has a low SPF, and will not protect your skin as well as sunscreen.

The department of dermatology at BU offers skin cancer checks. Make an appointment, encourages Krejci, and you’ll be given a 15-minute slot in which doctors will check you “from the top of your head to in between your toes” for any irregularities.

Remember, you can still enjoy many days at the beach this summer while protecting your skin.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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