Slather on sunscreen, check your skin regularly for suspicious marks and moles—for the past four years, Cosmo has been reminding readers to adopt these three big-picture healthy-skin habits so you don't end up another skin-cancer statistic. The numbers are scary: cases of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—among young women have doubled in the past few decades, and melanoma is the most prevalent cancer in women in their 20s.
But protecting yourself is more than just adopting a few large-scale pro-active measures. It's also crucial that you take a close look at your lifestyle and catch any hidden risk factors that leave you more susceptible to skin cancer without your even realising it. With this in mind, we consulted top dermatologists, zeroing in on the five mistakes young women make.
Mistake 1: You use moisturiser as sunscreen
Moisturiser infused with sunscreen is one of the best beauty-product combos since the compact, affording you extra SPF protection. The problem, however, is relying on it as your only SPF defense.
"Many moisturisers have an SPF of only 15, and because it's more of a beauty product, women tend not to apply it as thickly as they should, says Stanley J. Miller, M.D, associate professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. "They might be getting an SPF of only about 7...and even less if they don't re-apply their moisturiser every couple of hours. While moisturiser is a must for skin hydration, if you're going to be outside for more than 15 minutes, apply a facial sunscreen as well.
Mistake 2: You haven't checked out your family cancer history
True, most cases of skin cancer—especially basal cell and squa mous cell carcinomas, the less deadly forms of the disease—are directly caused by exposure to UV rays from either too much sun exposure or indoor tanning. But there's also a genetic component to skin cancer that leaves some people more susceptible than others. This is especially important when it comes to melanoma.
The facts: One first-degree relative (mom, dad, or sibling) with melanoma gives you up to a threetimes-greater risk of the disease over someone with no family history, according to a study in the Journal Of Investigative Dermatology. It also sets you up for developing melanoma earlier: the American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that the average age for melanoma to be diagnosed in people with a family history is in their 30s; the average age among the general public is in their 50s.
"There's a strong hereditary pre-disposition to melanoma—behaviours like the whole family balking at using sunscreen can play a role, but it also boils down to genetics, explains Albert Lefkovits, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. If a second-degree relative (grandparents, cousins) has had melanoma, your risk may be one-and-a-half times greater. And it's not about a family history of just skin cancer but other cancers as well. You should alert your dermatologist if anyone in your family has had both melanoma and pancreatic cancer or melanoma and breast or ovarian cancers. At least two genes have been linked to familial melanoma, and some mutations in these genes may predispose you to these other cancers.
Mistake 3: You bum a few cigarettes sometimes
Lighting up at parties or grabbing a cigarette or two at happy hour may allow you to stay just shy of officially being tagged a smoker. But in terms of the damage it does, your not-every-day habit still raises your risk.
Toxins in cigarette smoke are poison to your skin cells. Not only do these toxins accelerate the aging process so skin develops fine lines and age spots, but they also trigger the DNA damage that can put you in line for skin cancer, says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. This may explain why studies have shown that smokers have higher rates of squamous cell carcinoma.
If that's not enough, having smoke wafting around your face also contributes to DNA damage as well as fine lines.
Mistake 4: You don't check your head and neck for suspicious marks
Only about 6 percent of melanomas strike on the head or neck. But when they do, they're deadlier: a 2008 University of North Carolina study found that people with scalp or neck melanomas die at nearly two times the rate of those with it on their arms or legs.
"There are a lot of blood vessels in the scalp and neck, which may make it easier for melanoma to circulate through the body and cause cancer in other organs, says Naomi Lawrence, M.D., director of dermasurgery at Cooper Hospital in New Jersey and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. "Your hair may also hide these cancers, so you don't find them until they are at a later stage.
Make it easier to see your scalp by parting your hair with a blow dryer or brush to check it in a mirror. Or ask your stylist to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. "A lot of my patients were sent to me by their hair dresser or barber, says Dr Lawrence.
Mistake 5:You work (or once worked) outdoors and forgot about the sun
Because sun damage is cumulative, even bits of unprotected exposure on the job—15 minutes of waitressing at an outdoor cafe, 25 minutes of teaching swimming—increase your cancer odds if you went sans sunscreen.
If your outdoor workdays are in the past, be a little more proactive about checking for marks and moles, suggests Dr Lefkovits, and let your dermatologist know your job history. Should you currently work outside, slather on sunscreen, protect yourself with a hat and/or sunglasses, and take breaks in the shade.