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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Skin Care for Your Skin Type

June 19, 2012

Skin Cancer
Skin Care for Your Skin Type
Skin Care for Your Skin Type
Sunburn can cause pain and nausea. It can also lead to cancer.
InteliHealth Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Skin Care for Your Skin Type

A bad sunburn can cause everything from skin pain to nausea in the short run. And in the long run, unprotected exposure to the sun can lead to a host of problems, from skin dryness and wrinkles to cancer.

Nothing's terribly surprising here. However, some people don't consider the level of sun protection that's right for them — until it's too late.

There are three main types of skin cancers:

Basal cell carcinomas (80% of all skin cancers) are the most easily treated type and usually appear as pearly, slow-growing, raised areas that may crust and bleed. They occur mostly on the face, neck and hands.

Squamous cell carcinomas (16% of skin cancers) are red or pink, scaly bumps, typically appearing on the face, hands and ears. These, too, can be easily treated if detected early.

Malignant melanomas (4% of skin cancers) are the most serious type of skin cancer. They often can be treated successfully if caught early but have the potential to be fatal. Melanomas usually begin as a dark brown or black flat spot with irregular borders that later can change shape or color. Malignant melanomas may also grow from a benign mole.

What you can do

Clothing and hats are effective as basic protection against sun damage of any kind. Light-colored garments reflect the rays rather than absorbing the energy, so they keep you cooler. It's also wise to watch the clock when it comes to sun exposure. Peak sunlight hours are from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so try to limit your exposure during those hours.

Sunscreen products are very effective as long as you apply them correctly. In general, most people apply less than half the amount of sunscreen that is needed for good protection and often miss the ears and the neck, both front and back.

The best way to apply sunscreen is to work down. Begin with the face, ears, neck, arms and hands, then the chest, abdomen, thighs, legs, feet, and then let someone else get your shoulders and back well covered. Also, reapply sunscreen every one and a half to two hours if you go swimming.

It also makes sense to know what type of sunscreen is right for you. Although sunscreens come in SPF (sun protection factors) as low as 2, choose at least an SPF15 if you truly want to protect yourself from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays.

What kind of sun protection is necessary for certain individuals? Take a look at this chart:

Skin type
Recommended protection
People with photosensitivity (e.g., people with certain skin conditions or skin allergies, and those taking medications that cause photosensitivity) Generally, you should avoid sun exposure. When you must be in the sun, cover up as much as possible with clothing and use a broad-spectrum, high-SPF sunscreen
White, pale, burns easily SPF 30 or higher for everyday use. SPF 30 or higher for the beach or other all-day use
White, able to tan SPF 30 or higher
Asian, Hispanic, Indian and fair African-Americans SPF 30 or higher
Darker-skinned African-Americans Although natural pigmentation provides a good deal of protection against the sun's ultraviolet rays, for prolonged exposure, an SPF 30 or higher should be applied for the beach or other all-day use
23967, 24380, 28953, 29718,
neck,malignant,photosensitivity,ultraviolet rays
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