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Skin Cancer Archive


The science of sunscreen

Updated February 15, 2021

Misinformation about sunscreen is common. Don't let myths deter you from using it to protect your skin.

 Image: © wragg/Getty Images

If you've ever searched online for information about sunscreen, what you found may have made you feel less than sunny about slathering on these lotions and creams. Sunscreen is designed to protect your skin from the sun's damaging rays, but some of the claims made about it suggest it could do more harm than good.

Assertions include everything from statements that sunscreen is ineffective to warnings that it's outright dangerous. Some writers even go as far as to state that sunscreen may cause skin cancer, thanks to a purported harmful cocktail of toxic ingredients. That's enough to darken your day.

Safety of LED nail lamps

Updated April 19, 2021

Ask the doctors

Q. I was worried about drying my nails with a lamp or light box at the nail salon because of the potential risk of cancer from the ultraviolet radiation, but my salon recently switched to LED lamps. Are they safer?

A. The light boxes used to cure polish during gel manicures, and to dry traditional nail polish, have raised some concern because — like tanning beds — they emit ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is associated with a higher cancer risk. A 2014 study in JAMA Dermatology found that the level of UVA exposure associated with a gel manicure every two weeks probably isn't high enough to increase the risk of skin cancer significantly, but you are wise to be aware of the issue.

Prescription cream may lower risk for repeat skin cancers

Updated April 1, 2018

In the journals

A prescription cream called 5-fluorouracil (5-FU, sold as Adrucil and other brands) may help people reduce their risk for squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), according to a study published in the Jan. 3, 2017, JAMA Dermatology. SCC, the second most common cancer in the United States, strikes twice as many men as women.

Researchers recruited 932 people, 98% of whom were men, with an average age of 71. Each had experienced at least two skin cancers — SCC, basal cell carcinoma (BCC, the most common skin cancer), or both — on their face or ears within the past five years. They were randomly assigned to receive either the 5-FU cream or a placebo cream. Everyone applied a thin layer twice a day to their face and ears for up to four weeks. Over the course of a year, the 5-FU group had a 75% lower incidence of SCC compared with the placebo group. They also had a 11% lower incidence of BCC, but this difference was not statistically significant. It's not known why 5-FU helped prevent SCC but not BCC, according to the researchers.

Melanomas don’t always arise from existing moles

Updated December 1, 2017

In the journals

 Image: © Manuel-F-O/Thinkstock

While it's important to have any suspicious mole checked for possible skin cancer, a study published online Aug. 29, 2017, by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology suggests most melanomas — the deadliest skin cancer — appear as new spots on the skin. The researchers reviewed 38 studies involving 20,126 cases of melanoma and found that 29% of diagnosed melanomas came from an existing mole, while 71% appeared as new spots. Moreover, they discovered that melanomas that grew from moles were thinner and thus less aggressive than other melanomas. In fact, people whose melanoma was associated with a mole had a better prognosis than others.

The study's authors stressed the importance of looking for any new spots on the skin as well as checking moles for changes, like itching or bleeding, and to see a dermatologist if needed. The American Academy of Dermatology encourages everyone to perform regular skin self-exams, and to ask a partner to check hard-to-see areas like the back. You can learn how to do a skin self-exam, and much more, at

Most melanomas start as new spots

Updated December 1, 2017

Research we're watching

 Image: © ChesiireCat/Thinkstock

To catch skin cancer early, be on the lookout for new spots on your skin. A recent study found that more often than not, melanoma occurs as a new spot on your body — not as changes in an existing mole. The study, published online August 29 by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found that only 29% of melanomas came from an existing mole on the body that changed. In 71% of cases, melanoma occurred in a new lesion that popped up in a new place on the skin. In addition, the study authors noted that melanomas that do occur in existing moles tend to be thinner than melanomas in new lesions.

In addition to looking for new and unusual spots on your skin, remember your ABCDs to spot the signs of melanoma:

Melanoma isn’t the only skin cancer

Updated October 1, 2017

Research we're watching

You probably know to have your skin checked frequently for the signs of melanoma. But you should also be looking out for another, more common type of skin cancer — squamous cell carcinoma. This potentially lethal skin cancer can show up on your skin as a white or pink bump, a non-healing sore, or even a scaly patch. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, cases of squamous cell carcinoma are on the rise, with some 700,000 new diagnoses each year.

"While other skin cancers may be more lethal, they're less common," writes Dr. M. Laurin Council, an assistant professor of dermatology at Washington University in St. Louis. "Squamous cell carcinoma is highly treatable when detected early, so it's important for people to know the signs of this disease and keep a close eye on their skin."

Which is best for optimal sun protection — sprays or lotions?

Updated June 1, 2017

On call

Q. I have a history of skin cancer, so I am careful with my sunscreen application. I recently heard that I should avoid spray sunscreens. Is that true?

A. Sunscreen use is highly recommended to help prevent skin damage from sun exposure. Spray sunscreens are popular because they are easy to apply and help cover hard-to-reach areas like the back and shoulders. However, they do raise a few concerns. One is the chance of inhaling some of the sunscreen ingredients or its propellant. The health risk from this is uncertain, but it may trigger asthma in susceptible men. The FDA has not specifically determined the health risks of inhaling sunscreen sprays, but recently advised not to use them near your face.

Do gel manicures increase cancer risk?

Updated May 1, 2017

Ask the doctors

Image: © Click_and_Photo/Thinkstock
I like gel manicures because the polish doesn't chip easily, but I've heard that they may cause cancer. Is this true?

A. The gel polish itself hasn't been associated with an increased risk of cancer. However, lamps and light boxes, which are used to seal the polish during professional manicures, have raised concern. That's because many emit fairly high levels of UVA radiation, which plays a major role in the development of cancer. The level of risk depends on the frequency of manicures. A 2014 study in JAMA Dermatology indicated that the level of UVA exposure associated with a gel manicure every two weeks probably isn't high enough to increase the risk of skin cancer significantly.

Finding “ugly ducklings” may help detect melanoma

Updated May 1, 2017

Research we're watching

Image: © Igor Gratzer/Thinkstock
In Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, the ugly duckling stands out from the flock because he's destined to become a swan. In dermatology, the "ugly duckling" is a mole that doesn't look like the rest of the moles on a person's body, and is often suspected to be a melanoma.

A team of French researchers decided to test whether finding an ugly duckling among all of a patient's moles is as effective a way of identifying melanoma as applying diagnostic criteria — like size, shape, color, and irregularity — to each mole separately. For the study, nine dermatologists studied images of 2,089 individual moles from 80 people. The images were presented to the dermatologists two different ways on two different days. On one day, they evaluated each image separately; on another, they looked for the ugly ducklings among the complete set of moles from each patient. They were able to flag the melanomas accurately both times. However, they were able to decrease the number of moles biopsied when they used the ugly duckling system.

Adapting to life after cancer

Updated September 14, 2016

Once you've completed treatment, adjusting to a "new normal" can be challenging.

Image: RuslaGuzov/ Thinkstock

Completing cancer therapy can feel like a graduation. You've done some hard work, it's paid off, and you may be ready to celebrate. But saying goodbye to treatment can arouse many of the emotions and uncertainties associated with beginning a new chapter in life.

Dr. Larissa Nekhlyudov is a general internist who works with cancer survivors at two Harvard affiliates, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She acknowledges that cancer survivors have a lot to deal with. "Once you've had your final chemotherapy infusion or swallowed the last pill, you may find yourself facing a new set of challenges—monitoring yourself for signs of recurrence, getting recommended follow-up care, adjusting to the long-term effects of treatment, psychologically adapting to normal life, and working to stay in good health," Dr. Nekhlyudov says.

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