I Had Skin Cancer at 20 Years Old—Here Are the 5 Suncare Steps I Never Forget
A little-known fact about me: I have three separate scars all in a row across the tippy top of my forehead. The middle one was from when my brother hit me in the head with a shovel when I was 5 (an accident during family gardening gone wrong). The other two are from getting a couple of basal cell carcinomas, the most common type of skin cancer, removed in 2012 when I was just 20 years old. I was interning at the time and returned to the office with two bandages on my head, which I said were because of burns from my hair straightener. This was a lie I told out of embarrassment, but at the beginning, I actually did think the marks were from burns until they wouldn't go away, so I went to the dermatologist, where I discovered they were skin cancer.
Even though the procedure to remove my two basal cell carcinomas was relatively simple (it involved my dermatologist numbing my forehead and making incisions to remove the cells), it was still a hard adjustment for a 20-year-old. In college, a school dermatologist made me cry after I told her about my skin cancer history. She was being shadowed by a couple of med students, and while talking to them in front of me, she made a huge deal of how young I was to have skin cancer and how rare it was. To quote Mia Thermopolis: "As if I wasn't enough of a freak already!"
To get a more informative (and less judgmental) take on skin cancer in young people, I tapped Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I asked him if he is increasingly diagnosing skin cancers in patients 25 and under recently.
"Skin cancers are uncommon in patients under 25," Zeichner told me. "That being said every year, I seem to find more and more skin cancers in this group of patients. This may be due to not protecting the skin as well as they should have when they were younger, the use of tanning beds, and depletion of the ozone layer allowing greater penetration of UV light to the Earth’s surface."
I also asked Zeichner to elaborate on what makes some young people more susceptible to skin cancer than others. "Skin cancers develop as a result of genetics and environment," Zeichner said. "In some people, even low levels of UV light are enough to cause damage that causes skin cancers to develop. In other people, their skin cells are genetically more resistant to the effects of ultraviolet light. Family history is an important predicting factor. If your first-degree relatives have a history of skin cancers, you should be extra vigilant in protecting yourself from the skin." This definitely rings true for me, as my parents and grandparents have all had numerous basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.
Scroll down to find out my top suncare tips, and shop my favorite suncare products. Don't forget to book a skin check with your own dermatologist as well.
Both of my basal cell carcinomas were at the tippy top of my forehead, where my baby hairs are, which is an area that can easily be overlooked. To apply to this area, put some sunscreen on your fingertips of both hands and start rubbing it in at the top of your forehead, pushing your fingers upward into your hairline as you go. Don't be afraid to get all up in your hair—you can take a tissue and lightly dab it off of your hair at the end. Trust me when I say it's better to have some sunscreen residue in your hair than have skin cancer scars on your forehead. This also applies to anyone with a receding hairline or a bald spot—it's crucial to apply sunscreen to the areas of the scalp that are most exposed to the sun.
In addition to covering the very top of my forehead, I also use a sunscreen powder on the area of my scalp where I part my hair. I'm a fan of Supergoop!'s, but since I have auburn hair, I can't personally attest to how it works on dark hair.
Like most SoCal residents, I spend a lot of time in the car. Even in the dead of summer, I wear a hoodie in the car and crank up the AC so I don't have to worry about slathering sunscreen all over my shoulders and arms. Then I just have to worry about applying it on my face, neck, and hands. Do not forget your hands, especially since they're exposed to the sun when you have your hands on the steering wheel.
Even if you don't spend much time in your car, don't forget to reapply sunscreen to your hands as often as possible. Most people in their 60s and above, including my mom, probably wish they took more care of their hands that are now covered with sunspots.
Similar to eyebrows and ears, lips can be overlooked when it comes to SPF. During the day, I always make sure my lip balm has SPF in it. (At nighttime, I use whatever I want.) If you're anything like me, you reapply lip balm constantly due to dry lips anyway, so SPF products are a great way to get maximum sun protection without even trying. Easy peasy.
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