In Part 1 of our skin myth-busting interview with Allegheny Health Network (AHN) director of dermatologic surgery Dr. Nicole Velez, we explored five common sun safety myths. But skin health is a year-round concern and shouldn’t be limited to protecting yourself from the sun. Let’s return to the conversation to address a few more topics where better information may mean better skin and better overall health.
Although sun damage is a top contributor to skin cancer, it is not the only risk factor. In fact, you can get skin cancer even in areas that may not be exposed to the sun at all. “The classic example is that Bob Marley died of melanoma on his toe — not an area that typically gets a lot of sun exposure,” Dr. Velez explains. “To dispel another myth, African Americans and others with darker skin are not risk-free when it comes to skin cancer.”
Some risk factors, like genetics, we don’t control — but that makes it all the more important to pay attention to factors like sun exposure that we can control. Dr. Velez points out that those with red hair, for instance, are at a higher risk for melanoma due to a genetic mutation (the same one that leads to red hair) in the melanocyte receptors that produce pigment-producing cells. “But that doesn’t mean red-heads should say, well, I have a higher risk regardless, so it won’t make a difference if go out in the sun. Every risk factor can make a difference.”
She adds that patients with compromised immune systems also have an increased risk of skin cancer. “We see a higher risk in patients whose immune system is compromised — particularly those with another underlying cancer or transplant patients who take immunosuppressive medications to prevent transplant rejection,” she explains.
Melanoma is the most dangerous skin cancer, claiming nearly 10,000 lives each year according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. (Two other types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are even more common.) One of the worst myths to believe is that there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself. In addition to good sun safety, Dr. Velez points out that, unlike internal organs, early warning signs for skin cancer are usually visible — and don’t require dermatology training. “You see your skin, your family and friends see your skin — so if we pay attention and know what to look for, we can spot the warning signs for melanoma early,” she explains. “When it’s caught early enough, it’s very treatable.”
The quantity and appearance of moles are one focal point. People who have more than 100 moles or who have large, atypical or “funny looking” moles, are at higher risk. For a helpful, easy-to-remember guide on what to look for, check out our sidebar on the “ABCDEs of Melanoma.”
Ok, this one’s a little tricky. A diet of low-nutrition, high-calorie junk food isn’t good for your health, period. But when it comes to acne specifically, the verdict is still inconclusive. Although there have been studies looking at different foods associated with acne, not much has been agreed upon.
“One thing that shows a potential correlation with acne is a high glycemic index — in other words, eating a lot of carbs could be associated with acne,” says Dr. Velez. “Drinking high quantities of low-fat milk has also been associated with acne. But in general, we as dermatologists don’t usually tell people to avoid any foods in particular.”
She adds that stress, genetic predisposition, hormones and other factors can all play a role in developing acne or other skin conditions. In short, if someone is blaming acne on peanuts or chocolate or French fries or any of the typical scapegoats, take it with a grain of salt. For troublesome cases of acne or other skin problems, your best bet is to get to a dermatologist to get an accurate diagnosis, and the most effective treatment.
As with most industries, “let the buyer beware” is a good mindset when it comes to skin care and anti-aging products. But don’t dismiss every claim as mere marketing — some products stand up pretty well to scientific testing.
For example, although “anti-aging” products understandably elicit skepticism, those containing retinol may live up to the “miracle cream” hype.
“There’s good evidence to show that retinol, a vitamin A derivative, works at the level of the nucleus to alter how skin cells develop,” Dr. Velez says. “Retinol-based products can help normalize skin cell development, prevent pores from being clogged, even out and add firmness to skin, reduce wrinkles, and more.”
She adds that retinol-based creams are also safe, except during pregnancy, where high levels of vitamin A can potentially be harmful to unborn babies. The one downside with such products is temporary dryness, which dermatologists offset by having patients start with a small amount, and use along with a moisturizer.
“The two types of skin care products we have real evidence for are sunscreen and retinol,” Dr. Velez says. For a simple, effective skin care routine, focus on sunscreen and a retinol-based cream. She adds that for those looking to go beyond those essentials, she also recommends creams that contain vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a normal component of the skin that provides volume and firmness. Vitamin C creams are antioxidant — they work with your sunscreen to help prevent sun damage.
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