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Sun Spots or Melanoma: Everyone’s at Risk, So How Can You Prevent It?

Sun’s out, spots out! After months of rain and snow, the sun is a welcome change, but with the sun starting to make regular appearances, so do sun spots. Dark spots appear on almost everyone’s skin eventually (there’s a reason they’re also called age spots!) – but are they simply harmless sun spots, or could they be an indication of something more serious, like melanoma AKA. skin cancer? Let's discuss the difference between sun spots and skin cancer and what you can do to keep the former from becoming the latter.

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What are Sun Spots?

PSA beach lovers: if you love the sun or have spent a decent amount of time exposed to it, sun spots – also called “liver spots” or “age spots” – are likely to show up on your skin at one point or another.  These age spots tend to appear – you guessed it – with age, though younger people aren’t entirely in the clear either. Vitamin D in appropriate amounts is good for you, but if you spend lots of time in the sun, you’re most definitely at risk.

These spots show up as small, dark areas on your skin (they can be tan, brown or black in colour). They vary in size, and tend to appear in places that are most easily exposed to the sun: the face, back of hands, shoulders, tops of feet, and arms1.

What is Melanoma?

Like sun spots, melanoma often appears as dark spots on the skin (they can be brown, tan, or grey, but also red, blue, and white, too!), and tend to vary in size at the beginning with steady outward growth. Despite it’s similarity to seemingly harmless sun-spots, melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of skin cancer that can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Also called cutaneous melanoma or malignant melanoma of the skin, there are four main types of melanoma skin cancer, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll keep it simple and focus on the most common type of melanoma: Superficial spreading melanoma2 .

Superficial spreading melanoma (SSM) makes up 70% of all melanoma skin cancers3 . It can present as a small dark spot or even spread from a mole that’s already on the skin. Again, similar to liver or sun spots, this type of melanoma usually first appears on parts of the body that are most exposed to the sun, including the back, arms, and legs.

5 ways to tell the difference between melanoma and sun spots

So how do you tell the difference between melanoma and sun spots? Because sun spots and melanoma can appear so similar at first glance, it’s helpful to consider the ABCs of melanoma to determine if you have reason to worry4 :

  1. Asymmetry: The growth in a melanoma spot tends to be different on one side than the other. One side is typically bigger. Be on the lookout for asymmetrical spots.
  2. Border: Check out the border of your spot; if it’s irregular or inconsistent, there’s reason to be suspicious.
  3. Colour: The darker the spot, the greater your concern should be. And if it’s more than one colour? Definitely get it checked out.
  4. Diameter: As a general rule of thumb, melanomas tend to be larger in diameter than the eraser on top of a pencil, but there are also melanomas that start off very small, so it’s always best to keep an eye on a spot regardless of size. Growth is never a good sign.
  5. Evolution: Sudden changes, along with bleeding, itching, and pain to a skin spot should be investigated by your doctor for further diagnosis.

Keep in mind that this is only a general guide to spotting early stages of melanoma.  Early detection – whether it’s age spots or melanoma – can be more easily treated, so it’s best to do frequent skin checks. While age spots don’t typically require medical intervention, cosmetic treatment is available if desired. Melanoma treatment, on the other hand, is always surgical, but early stage melanoma is highly curable and can sometimes even be done in a dermatologist’s office5 .

3 ways to prevent melanoma and protect your skin from sun spots:

  1. How’s your SPF game? – The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone use a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection (UVA and UVB protection) of SPF 30 or higher 6 . Our hydrating SPF 30 Lightweight Broad Spectrum Sunscreen meets these requirements and more! Designed by Dr. Rivers to provide daily sun protection for individuals with sensitive skin, it contains our signature anti-aging combination of phosphate from Vitamin C & E paired with Beta-T from the Pacific Red Cedar, which works together to provide lasting protection and anti-aging benefits throughout the day. Bonus: we also have a travel-kit option in a carry-on friendly tote for easy application when on the go!
  2. Dress up, not down – Besides lathering yourself in protective sunscreen, take measures to limit your sun exposure: stay out of the sun when it’s at its hottest between 10am-2pm, and wear protective clothing if you’ll be exposed1. Think wide-brimmed sun hats, cover-ups, and beach umbrellas!
  3. Anyone can get it – Melanoma can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, or race, but people with fair skin and those who have a history of heavy sun exposure are more susceptible7 .

These are just a few proactive ways you can keep in mind to prevent melanoma. But, remember that age spots while not cancerous, do indicate UV skin damage, which is a major risk factor for developing melanoma8 . So, “if you notice any suspicious spots, resembling sun, liver, or age spots anywhere on your body, see your doctor and get it checked out,” says Dr. Rivers. “It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

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References

  1. Mayo Clinic. Age spots (liver spots). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/age-spots/symptoms-causes/syc-20355859
  2. Singh, Parmvir; Kim, Hee Jin; Schwartz, Robert A. 2016. Superficial Spreading Melanoma: an analysis of 97 702 cases using the SEER database. Retrieved from: https://journals.lww.com/melanomaresearch/Abstract/2016/08000/Superficial_spreading_an_analysis_of.11.aspx
  3. Canadian Cancer Society. What is melanoma skin cancer? Retrieved from: http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/skin-melanoma/melanoma/types-of-melanoma/?region=on
  4. Everyday Health. Melanoma or age spots? How to tell the difference. Retrieved from: https://www.everydayhealth.com/skin-cancer/melanoma-or-age-spots-how-to-tell-the-difference.aspx
  5. Orzan, OA; Sandru, A; Jecan, CR. 2015. Journal of Medicine and Life. Controversies in the diagnosis and treatment of early cutaneous melanoma. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4392104/
  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. Retrieved from: https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs
  7. Erdei, Esther; Torres, Salina M. 2010. A new understanding in the epidemiology of melanoma. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3074354/
  8. American Cancer Society. Risk Factors for Melanoma Skin Cancer. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html