A woman applies sun cream to her body.

How to protect yourself from skin cancer, according to a doctor

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A dermatologist specialising in skin cancer shares essential tips on how to reduce your risk and take care of your skin.

The weather in Britain may be better known for its cloudy days than sunny ones, but that doesn’t mean the threat of skin cancer should be taken lightly. In fact, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK and numbers continue to rise, according to the British Skin Foundation, making prevention more vital than ever.

A woman with sun tan lotion on her back in the shape of the sun
Applying sun cream with a broad spectrum. © Getty Images
Types of skin cancer

In a nutshell, skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cells, most often found on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun. There are two main types of skin cancer: melanomas, which often appear as new marks on the skin; and non-melanomas, which tend to appear gradually on areas regularly damaged by the sun, such as the head and neck.

Melanoma skin cancer is the most serious form of skin cancer. It can occur at any age but is the most common cancer in young women aged 20-30. It’s both genetic and exposure induced. Non-melanoma skin cancer is predominantly found in older age groups as a result of chronic high sun exposure. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma also fall into this group.

Non-melanoma skin cancers include any growing lesion, red lesions or non-healing areas. If there are any new, non-healing, changed moles, or red areas in the skin that haven’t healed up after three to four weeks, you should certainly seek advice.

There are two major forms of skin cancer. You have the ABCDE: asymmetry, border irregularity, changing colour, diameter and evolving, but you also have the EGF: elevated, growing firm lesion, and these can grow rapidly. The latter are the nodular malignant melanomas, which particularly occur in men as they reach older age.

According to Cancer Research UK, there are around 16,000 new melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK annually — that equates to 44 new cases every day — and considering this type can spread to other areas of the body, it’s a figure that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

The charity also highlights that 86% of melanoma skin cancer cases are preventable in the UK. It’s for this reason that skin cancer experts such as Dr Stevens, from the Skin Care Network, stress the importance of taking a proactive approach by following a few simple guidelines. We spoke to him to find out more.

Read more: SPF 100 is the highest-factor sun cream. How does it work?
Dr Howard Stevens in front of the Skincare Network logo.
Dr Howard Stevens © Skincare Network
Is it true that skin cancer can affect anyone?

Yes. Skin cancer affects all ages and all skin types. A skin check should be performed every four to six weeks. It should take about 10 minutes. You need to use a mirror to examine areas such as your back and may need help checking your scalp.

What are some of the main risk factors for skin cancer?

The main risk factors for skin cancer are genetics and high sun exposure. Your risk of developing a malignant melanoma is higher the closer you live to the Equator or if you have a fair skin type. Another major risk factor is sunbed use — having sunbeds increases your risk by 74%.

Can you share your expert tips for picking and applying sunscreen?

One should wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50, which should be applied every two hours, especially after swimming. The SPF protects against UVB, which causes burning, but you should also choose sunscreen with a five-star rating — this is to protect against UVA, which is the cause of skin ageing. These rays are present throughout the year, regardless of weather and temperature, and can even penetrate glass.

A woman applies sun cream to her body.
Sun cream should be applied every 2 hours to maximise protection.
When should someone consult a professional about their skin cancer concerns?

If in doubt, check it out. Make sure to tell your doctor about any changes to your skin, moles or marks. However insignificant it may seem, it is their job to help, and most cancers can be controlled and treated with early detection.

If you have a high risk of developing skin cancer, consider arranging an annual appointment with your dermatologist. You could be at risk because you have a close relative with melanoma, have repeatedly had sunburn in your life or have been exposed to high sun by frequent sunbeds or holidays near the Equator.

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