Health & Wellness

Are you missing the signs of skin cancer?

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Sun and Cancer: Signs of Melanoma

Spending too much time in the sun can cause cancer if you aren't protecting yourself with sunscreen, so experts suggest that you wear it every day, all year long. But that isn't all you can do to lower your risk of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. You should also do monthly self-exams to look for irregular moles—if you notice anything suspicious have your doctor examine it to rule out skin cancer. And be thorough: Check even the places you might not think to look, usually the same places you forget to apply sunscreen.

Who's at risk?

Skin cancer can happen to anyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), melanoma rates have increased 2 percent a year among white women from 2000-2009. While people of color are at a lower risk for skin cancer—though there's been an increase among Latinos—the mortality rate is higher because of later-stage diagnoses, reports the Skin Cancer Foundation.

What does skin cancer look like?

“Most melanomas typically look like a dark or multicolored mole or spot on the skin that has irregular borders or edges; however, it may also be skin colored,” says dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist. Though melanoma doesn't usually have any physical symptoms, like burning or itching, Dr. Jaliman says, “The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new mole turning up anywhere on the body, or one that changes size, shape or color.”

Where to look
In addition to your arms, legs and face, dermatologists recommend paying close attention to these areas, too:

Your scalp

Jaliman says she's seen an uptick in melanomas on the scalp because few people apply sunscreen there. “There’s a lot of sun exposure there, especially on a part, or if hair is thinning or the person is bald.”

Prevention tip: Wear a hat or broad spectrum SPF 30 on your scalp (or both!). Ask your hairdresser to check for any irregularities whenever you get your hair cut or styled.

In or behind your ears

Like the scalp, the ears are rarely a spot that gets sunscreen, says Jaliman. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation less than a third of people apply sunscreen on their ears.

Prevention tip: Apply a stick sunscreen that’s made of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to the ears (front and back). “They’re [zinc and titanium oxides] both good broad-spectrum blockers that should be reapplied after swimming or every 2 hours,” says Jaliman. A hat with a 2-inch brim also offers protection.

Under the nails

Subungual melanoma is responsible for roughly 5 percent of all melanomas, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation, and it usually crops up under the nail on the thumb or big toe. So even though manicures and pedicures look good, keep your nails bare when you visit the dermatologist, says Joshua L. Fox, M.D., founder and medical director at Advanced Dermatology P.C. If a sign of melanoma isn't easily visible to a dermatologist, something that could have been caught in an early stage could become deadly.

“This melanoma may look like a brown or black stripe under the nail that widens towards the nail fold and sometimes extending onto the nail fold,” says Dr. Fox.

Prevention tip: It has not been confirmed whether nail polish can protect your nails from skin cancer by blocking UV rays, but since wearing gloves year round is impractical, says Fox, "It's probably protective to some degree,” says Fox.

The groin or butt

You should be extra vigilant if a relative has had skin cancer—one in every 10 people diagnosed with melanoma have a family history, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And melanomas that surface on the groin or butt tend to be a matter of genetics. "People who have non-cancerous, abnormal moles, and/or a family history of melanoma are predisposed to melanoma that pops up in these two areas,” says Jaliman.

Prevention tip: Even if you wear shorts or a cover up to the beach and apply sunscreen around your bikini line, use a mirror to check for possible signs of cancer in hard-to-see places like the groin, pubic area and butt. And never sun bathe nude, says Jaliman.

Your feet

During a self-exam, always check the tops and soles of your feet and look between your toes, too.

Prevention tip: Sun exposure from sandals and flip flops in the summer can be a risk factor, according to Ariel Ostad, M.D. a dermatologist and cosmetic dermatologic surgeon in New York City. So if you’re going to romp around in open-toed shoes, treat your piggies to a little sunscreen.

Your eyes

Did you know that exposing your eyes to the sun can cause cancer in them? Yes, in them. When you don't wear sunglasses, UV rays can damage the skin of the eyelid as well as the cornea, lens and other parts of the eye, according says Barbara L Horn, O.D., an optometrist and spokesperson American Board of Optometry.

Most melanomas of the eye appear in or behind the iris (the colored part of the eye) and under the retina (the lining of the eye). They may cause a distortion of the pupil, like a change in its shape, a discoloration or spot on the iris, or blurred or decreased vision. “There’s usually no burning, tearing or itching of the eye and most melanomas are detected by routine eye examination,” says Dr. Horn. “People with fair skin, fair or red hair and blue eyes are most at risk.”

Prevention tip: The American Optometric Association recommends wearing sunglasses or contact lenses that offer UV protection, applying UV-blocking sunscreen around the eye area and wearing a hat to keep direct sunlight off the face and eyes.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.