Bare Facts About Skin
The skin that holds us together is our body's largest organ. It is a vital part of our immune system and defends us against harmful sun and other light rays, bacteria and viruses. It helps maintain our body temperature and enables us to feel warmth, cold, pain and other sensations through its nerve endings.
As we age, many changes your body goes through are seen and felt in your skin - it becomes wrinkled, it gets dryer, and spots and growths may form. Your skin also takes longer to heal.
Some of these changes are natural and harmless, others are painful and annoying. Other changes may be serious and require immediate medical attention such as a growth that may indicate skin cancer.
Wrinkles - as your skin ages, it loses elasticity. The tissue becomes weakened and your skin becomes thinner and loses fat which makes your skin look less full and smooth. In addition, gravity pulls your skin downward. Wrinkles are hereditary - how wrinkled your skin becomes depends a lot on how wrinkled your parents were. And if you are overexposed to the sun, wrinkles will appear faster.
Dry skin - your skin may feel flaky and itchy as your skin gets drier, especially in dry, cold, windy climates. Less severe cases of dry skin can be treated by applying moisturizers to the skin once or twice a day and especially after bathing. Bath oils have a limited effect and can make your tub slippery - a danger to older people. Hot water, harsh soaps and even some chemicals in lotions can also irritate dry skin. If dry skin continues to be a problem, see a dermatologist. Severe cases of itchy, flaky and cracked skin may indicate a serious problem such as psoriasis, an allergy or an internal condition such as diabetes, liver or kidney diseases or cancer.
Moles - most people are born with, and will later develop, moles on the body. Generally, they cause no problems and of the few that become cancerous, 95 percent can be successfully treated if detected early. Any bleeding, change in color, pain, itching or appearance of a new mole should be reported to your physician immediately.
Age spots or liver spots are flat, brown spots that usually appear on the face, hands, back and feet. They are promoted by sun exposure in older skin and despite advertising claims, do not "fade" with the use of commercial creams.
Seborrheic Keratoses - are brown or black raised spots that look like warts. They are benign tumors that look like they were stuck on the skin surface. They are common in older adults and are an inherited trait. They are not contagious or precancerous, but can be removed surgically on an outpatient basis if they are cosmetically bothersome.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma - a red, scaly spot which is an early sign of a form of sun-induced skin cancer. If it is ignored, it may grow into the body and have to be removed surgically. In its early stages, it can be removed with the application of a cream, a topical form of chemotherapy, by liquid nitrogen or other superficial procedure. Squamous cell cancer typically develops on the rim of the ear, face, lips and back of the hands. It increases in size and can spread to other organs.
Basal Cell Carcinoma - another form of skin cancer, appears on the head, neck or chest as a small, shiny pearly bump with a translucent border. When left untreated, the cancer lesions begin to bleed and crust over.Basal and squamous cell carcinomas make up more than 90 percent of all reported cases. Both favor areas of the skin exposed to the sun, grow relatively slowly and have high cure rates.
Malignant Melanoma - is a less common but more serious form of skin cancer. The incidence of melanoma rises with age. Early detection is important because of its ability to spread quickly throughout the body. It usually appears as a dark brown or black mole-like growth with irregular borders and irregular pigmentation. The brown or black growth may turn shades of red, blue and white. Melanoma frequently appears on the upper back, chest and lower legs.
Any change in an existing mole could indicate melanoma and should be checked immediately by your physician.
Check Yourself Monthly
Make it a habit to examine the front, back, left and right sides of your body with a mirror. Don't forget to check between your toes, the soles of your feet and your scalp. The warning signs of melanoma are:
• Asymmetry - one half of a mole doesn't match the other half.
• Border - irregularly shaped, ragged, notched or blurred edges.
• Color - mottled, with different shadings of brown and black (and sometimes red, blue or white)
• Diameter - any mole larger than six millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser)
If you notice that your body markings exhibit any of the above characteristics, see your physician immediately.
Protect Your Skin
In Hawaii, it is tough to avoid the sun. Although the sun is good for you because it provides vitamin D, too much sun exposes you to ultraviolet rays that can prematurely age the skin and cause skin cancer. One severe sunburn can double the risk of developing melanoma. To help protect your skin:
• Limit sun exposure. The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• Wear sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of 15 or higher. The higher the SPF number, the more effective it is at blocking UV rays. If you are allergic to the chemical PABA in sunscreens, use a sunscreen that has a PABA substitute or is PABA free.
• Some cosmetics and medications like antibiotics and birth control pills may make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Read the labels on your prescription drug or check with your physician if you're taking medication.
• Wear a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and gloves or jackets outdoors. Loose long-sleeved clothes may also help.
• Sand, concrete and water can reflect the sun's rays onto your skin. Sitting in the shade doesn't guarantee protection from a sunburn.