Q: What is skin cancer, and am I at risk?
A: Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US. It affects men and women of all ages and skin colors, and will affect 20% of the population at some point during their lifetime. There are three common types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma ("BCC"). BCC is almost always due to sun exposure; infrequently these cells form due to certain types of burns, scars, or skin diseases. BCC is rarely life-threatening, but it can grow and damage surrounding tissue, leading to considerable destruction and disfigurement. Squamous cell carcinoma ("SCC") is the second most common type of skin cancer. SCC is also caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, from both the sun and tanning beds. SCCs grow and destroy the skin and, while it is uncommon, if left untreated, some can get large and deep enough to spread to other parts of the body. Both BCC and SCC have a more than 95% cure rate if treated early.
The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma. It is the least common of the three types, but the incidence is increasing. If caught and treated early, melanoma can be cured, but if it is not caught in time, it can spread to other organs and can be fatal. Melanoma often, but not always, occurs on sun-exposed skin. There are both environmental (sun exposure) and genetic factors involved in the development of melanoma, so it is important to practice safe sun habits and check your skin regularly. The risk of developing melanoma is higher if you have fair skin and eyes, many moles on your skin, or a family history of melanoma. These are the reasons The Dermatology Center and Sona Dermatology & MedSpa recommend a yearly total body skin exam with one of our board-certified dermatologists.
Q: How can I treat sun damaged skin and still enjoy the sun?
A: You need to be honest with yourself about how willing you are to protect your skin from the sun. Don't waste your time and money treating your sun damage if you are not going to start protecting yourself from the sun. You don't have to stay home and hide and stop doing the things you love, but you do need to adapt your behaviors in order to minimize the damage to your skin. Wear SPF 30 or higher sunscreen, one with avobenzone and zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and wear a hat. Try to do your outdoor activities when the sun isn't at its peak, which is usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
If you decide that you want to treat your sun damage and you are going to start practicing good sun-protection, you have a variety of options. You can start with a retinoid cream at night that will help build collagen and fade the discolorations. You can boost the effectiveness of the retinoid cream by adding a hydroquinone, like TriLuma cream. You should also use an antioxidant serum in the morning. Another option would be intense pulsed light (“IPL”). IPL will treat brown spots from sun damage very well, especially if this is your main concern. Fraxel is another option, which treats fine lines and pigment. However, if you are only treating the brown spots, then IPL may be the way to go.
Q: What is the ideal age to start using retinol-containing products?
A: Retinol-containing products are a good choice for all age groups and have been proven to be one of the best products for anti-aging. Regular use will stimulate your skin to make new collagen, smoothing any existing fine lines while slowing down the appearance of new ones. The overall texture and tone of the skin will be softer, fresher, and more even. When you start using a retinoid cream for the first time, you will probably have some skin peeling or flaking, which is just your skin exfoliating and is not a sign of allergy or intolerance to the cream. If you are very dry, try using the cream every other night for a couple of weeks and then use it every night. You can also apply your moisturizer on top of the retinoid, and it will not decrease the effectiveness of the treatment. Unless you get very red or irritated, keep using the retinoid cream and your skin should adjust and stop feeling dry after 2-3 weeks. There are different strengths of retinoids, and you may want to start with a mild one, increasing over time to stronger treatments.