Oncologist shares top tips to protect yourself from skin cancer

June 30, 2021
Dr. Andrea Abbott smiles for a portrait
Dr. Andrea Abbott is a skin cancer expert at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center who encourages healthy practices for cancer prevention and treatment. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

Andrea Abbott, M.D., leaves work and changes out of her lab coat to model for a photo shoot, complete with a sundress, sun hat and sunglasses. Then she takes out some sunscreen and begins slathering up.

Abbott, a surgeon specializing in breast and skin cancers at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, wants to make a point. She is taking time out of her busy schedule because she’d rather educate people about how to prevent skin cancer instead of seeing them in her office. With skin cancer cases continuing to rise, she wants people to avoid sun damage and, should they develop skin cancer, know how to identify it early.

Nationwide, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. In South Carolina, melanoma of the skin is the 5th most common cancer diagnosed. Surveillance data for melanoma shows a 21.2% increase among white males and 24.6% increase among white females from 1999 to 2015. On average, 146 people die from melanoma each year in South Carolina.

To make matters more complicated, not all sunscreens are created equal. Abbott, a surgical oncologist specializing in breast and skin cancers at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, said a recent report showing high levels of benzene in certain popular brands of sunscreen is troubling.

“There are at least six ingredients that are known carcinogens, with benzene being one of those,” Abbott said.

In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration published research in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found six active ingredients in sunscreen were absorbed at rates above the FDA threshold, including avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. The FDA’s pilot study stated that people were still encouraged to use sunscreen, but more studies into these ingredients were needed.

According to a new complaint filed with the FDA, certain sunscreen products from brand names contained high levels of benzene.

“That really says a lot,” said Abbott. “Even the so-called reputable companies had some of these six ingredients in their sunscreens. It is going to have to be addressed. I think the FDA has now made it a public issue.”

Doctors still stress the importance of wearing sunscreen, as it helps to protect against skin cancer. More than two people die of skin cancer every hour in the United States.

When it comes to picking out the best sunscreens, Abbott said that there are two good ingredients to look for — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

“The white stripe or residue you see on your skin after applying indicates the product probably has zinc oxide in it, and to me, it is one of the best ingredients,” she said. “It is a physical sunscreen that works like a shield. It sits on top of your skin so it actually helps to repel the sun.”

Abbott also recommended that people use these simple tips when looking at sunscreen options: 

Dr. Andrea Abbott applies sunscreen 
Dr. Andrea Abbott recommends using sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or higher. Photo by Marquel Coaxum 
  1. Avoid sunscreens with harmful ingredients like benzene.
  2. Get SPF30 or higher.
  3. Make sure the sunscreen is water-resistant.
  4. Look for UVA and UVB protection.
  5. Use a sunscreen stick on your face to get closer to your eyes.
  6. Pay attention to your own skin’s needs.
  7. Consider sun-protective clothing.

“If you have sensitive skin, you’re going to want to look for something that will be better for you,” Abbot said. “If you are a really hairy person, maybe you’ll want to use a gel because that will get on your skin easier. If you have really dry skin, you might want to use a cream.”

The summer months also serve as a good reminder of the importance of routine skin exams, especially if you’ve had five or more blistering sunburns or have a family history of skin cancer.

“A good skin exam means a doctor is looking between your toes, in your hair and between your cheeks,” she said. “Unfortunately, melanoma can be diagnosed in areas where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Much like other cancers, skin cancer is best caught early. At MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, world-class researchers and doctors are constantly working on improving the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. Treatment options at Hollings include T-VEC, which uses a virus to infect and kill cancer cells while avoiding the healthy cells at the same time. This treatment is directly injected into melanoma tumors to shrink and kill cancer cells.

Hollings also offers patients the ability to have their biopsies read by specialized pathologists at MUSC, which is critical in getting timely and accurate results. Dirk Elston, M.D., chairman of the MUSC Department of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery and a Hollings skin cancer specialist, said having dermatopathologists on-site is a game changer. Dermatopathology is the study of skin pathology and a subspecialty of dermatology and pathology. Since a misdiagnosis of certain skin disorders can be fatal, it is critical that patients receive the most accurate and timely diagnoses.

“Dermatopathologists are experts in the interpretation of skin biopsies,” Elston said. “MUSC is fortunate to have five board-certified dermatopathologists to read biopsies from skin cancer patients.”

Abbott said the dermatopathologists are great assets to the team. When a patient is referred, pathology is obtained and reviewed on-site. “There are many cases where our pathologists change the diagnosis. We are the go-to for second opinions. When people in the community have exhausted what they feel comfortable treating, they often ask for our medical oncologists to give an opinion.”

Abbott said besides reducing your risk of skin cancer, taking care of your skin from harmful UV rays now can also save you money in the long run. “The number one way to avoid Botox, chemical peels and all these expensive cosmetic procedures is just to stay out of the sun.”