Skin, the body’s largest organ, protects you against disease and infection and regulates your body temperature, among other crucial functions. It’s important to take good care of this vital and complex organ, as there are a variety of skin problems that can occur, including serious issues like skin cancer. Here’s what to know about the structure of your skin and how you can protect it.
Your skin is composed of three layers: the epidermis (top layer), the dermis (middle layer), and the hypodermis (bottom layer). Each layer has an important purpose.
The epidermis is what you see when you look at your skin. It prevents infections by blocking bacteria and germs from entering your bloodstream. There are three types of cells in the epidermis:
Squamous cells, which form the top layer of the epidermis
Basal cells, which sit beneath the squamous cells
Melanocytes, which produce melanin — the pigment that gives skin its color — and are located at the bottom of the epidermis
Skin cancer first develops in the epidermis, with the three most common types of skin cancer affecting one of the three cells above.
The dermis, the middle layer of skin, plays an important role in your overall skin health. It contains collagen, a protein that keeps skin cells strong and healthy, and blood vessels that deliver nutrients to the epidermis. In addition, its sweat glands help regulate your body temperature, its hair follicles stimulate hair growth, and its nerves allow you to experience the sensation of touch.
The bottom layer of your skin is the fattiest, cushioning your muscles and bones when you fall and protecting you from the cold or extreme heat. The dermis’ nerves and blood vessels continue in the hypodermis, where they expand and reach the rest of your body.
Skin health issues
The sun emits a form of electromagnetic radiation called UV radiation that can damage the skin both directly and indirectly. This damage occurs gradually over time, potentially resulting in skin health issues such as:
Wrinkles and premature aging
Freckles, moles, and other benign skin growths
Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the U.S. It primarily occurs in parts of your body that receive the most sun exposure, such as your face, neck, hands, and arms, but it may develop anywhere.
Skin cancer can affect anyone, but you may be at a higher risk if you have lighter skin, a family history of skin cancer, prevalent moles, a history of severe sunburns, or a weakened immune system.
There are three common types of skin cancer: basal and squamous cell carcinomas, which develop in the epidermis’ basal and squamous cells, and melanoma, which develops in the melanocytes. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are very treatable. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer since it can spread to other organs if not detected early.
Limit your UV ray exposure
Limiting your exposure to UV rays is the most important thing you can do to prevent skin cancer and other types of skin damage. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher every day, even if it isn’t sunny, since up to 80% of UV rays can pass through clouds. Be extra careful around bright surfaces like snow, water, and sand, which can amplify UV exposure and increase your risk of a sunburn.
The strength of the sun’s rays fluctuates throughout each day, and from one day to the next. Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible between 10 am to 4 pm daylight savings time (9 am to 3 pm standard time), when UV radiation is at its strongest.
You are exposed to more UV radiation at higher altitudes, where more UV rays can reach the Earth’s surface. Check the UV Index for a daily forecast of local UV radiation strength on a scale of 0 to 11. Extra precautions against UV rays are recommended when the index is a three or higher. Protective clothing like long-sleeve shirts and wide-brimmed hats can help keep UV rays away from your skin.
It’s also best to avoid tanning beds, which use UV radiation and can increase your risk for skin cancer.
Check your skin regularly
Unlike many other types of cancer, skin cancer is often visible. Checking your skin regularly to identify new or changing skin growths such as moles can help you detect any potential issues early on, when they will be easier to treat.
Skin cancer can take various forms. In general, if you see anything new, changing, or unusual, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as possible. Here are common signs of skin cancer to watch for, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation:
A skin growth that increases in size and appears pearly, transparent, tan, brown, black, or multicolored
A mole, birthmark, or brown spot that increases in size, thickness, changes color or texture, or is bigger than a pencil eraser
A spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab, or bleed
An open sore that does not heal within three weeks
You can also use the first five letters of the alphabet as a tool for recognizing melanoma warning signs in particular:
Asymmetry: Unlike a round or oval mole, melanomas tend to be asymmetrical, with one side of the growth appearing differently from the other. For example, one side may appear darker and raised while the other looks lighter and flat.
Border: The borders of melanomas are uneven, in contrast to the smoother borders of common moles.
Color: Benign moles are often just one shade of brown, but melanomas may have multiple shades of brown, tan, or black. Other colors like red, white, or blue may appear as it grows. Many health experts also consider it to be a melanoma warning sign if a skin growth is darker than others.
Diameter: While it’s best to detect melanoma before it grows, scan for any skin growth the size of a pencil eraser or larger, approximately ¼ inch in diameter.
Evolving: Changes in size, shape, color, or elevation may be a warning sign of melanoma. Watch for new symptoms like bleeding or itching as well.
Even if you don’t see anything unusual during these scans, it’s important to visit a dermatologist at least once a year for an exam as part of your overall preventative care.
We’re here for your health
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.