I haven’t always been diligent about protecting my skin. When I was younger, I spent my summers in pursuit of the perfect suntan. I actually slathered on baby oil instead of regular suntan lotion as I basked in the sun to deepen my tan. Sunscreen? Forget it.
As I got older (and I’d like to think smarter), I became much more conscientious about applying sunscreen regularly. I knew it wouldn’t reverse the damage I had already done, but it would prevent further harm.
Fast-forward to a few months ago. Almost overnight a red, itchy spot appeared on my back. It looked and felt unusual enough that I made an appointment with a dermatologist. He agreed that the spot looked suspicious, immediately removed it and sent it out for a biopsy.
Related: 5 Tests That May Save Your Life
In my case, it turned out to be nothing. However, according to the American Cancer Society, about 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, will account for 73,000 cases of skin cancer in 2015, and it’s the No. 1 cancer in adults between the ages of 25 to 29.
These facts may scare you into stocking up on sunscreen, but you also should screen yourself all over once a month for any changes on your skin, especially the size or color of a mole, a new growth or spot, scaliness, itchiness, tenderness or a change in the way an area of skin looks.
Follow these basic guidelines from the Melanoma Research Foundation to identify potential problems:
A. Asymmetrical Shape: When you draw a line down the center of your mole, one side should mirror the other. If both sides are different, they are asymmetrical.
B. Border: Noncancerous moles usually have smooth, even borders, while melanoma lesions usually have irregular borders that are difficult to define.
C. Color: Melanoma lesions can have more than one color — black, gray and pink — or they may have no pigment at all and just look like a raised, red bump. Benign moles are usually just plain gray or brown.
D. Diameter:Melanomas are usually larger in diameter than a pencil eraser (¼ inch or 6 millimeters).
E. Evolution: A mole that changes — the color changes, it gets itchy or it grows — get it checked out immediately.
To help protect yourself, make sure you slather on sunscreen — rain or shine. Look for ones that offer UVA and UVB protection, and the American Cancer Society recommends at least SPF 30. Try to limit your sun exposure, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV light is strongest, and we don’t have to remind you not to use tanning beds, do we?
You also should schedule yearly skin-cancer screenings with your dermatologist.