By Lili’a Uili Neville
As a child, my mom embarrassed me because she used sunscreen to moisturize instead of body lotion. I thought it made her smell funny.
My mother is very fair skinned and prone to sunburn. My father is dark skinned. My skin tone is somewhere in between, but I have inherited the “durability” of my father’s skin. I sunburn once at the beginning of the summer season and then never burn again. If I happen to get pink on my face or shoulders, it fades to a tan overnight. I would estimate that after high school, i.e., outside of my mom’s oversight, I probably went about eight years without putting on sunscreen.
In 2011, my mom found out she had solar keratosis (precancerous lesions) on her chest. She underwent chemical peeling on her chest to remove them, but the experience was incredibly painful and invasive. About six months later, the dermatologist found precancerous lesions on her face. Because this time they were on her face, the dermatologist recommended photodynamic therapy instead of chemical peeling. She felt the photodynamic therapy was invasive, too, but overall she found the treatment more tolerable than the chemical peeling.
My first body scan
The following year when I had my annual wellness check up with my primary care physician, I updated my doctor with this latest addition to my family health history. He recommended that I make an appointment with a dermatologist and get a full body scan. This was a huge shock. I was always proud that I had my father’s skin (my brother takes after my mom). While my skin reacts well to sunlight, I do have a lot of moles and never really thought much of it.
My first appointment with the dermatologist took about 30 to 45 minutes to establish a family history and complete the fully body scan. She identified the location of every single mole on my body, oftentimes measuring them and asking questions about how long they had been there, if they had changed shape, did I notice them getting bigger, etc.
Frankly, I found the whole experience to be quicker and easier than a dental check up.
Based on my skin, family history and number of moles, my dermatologist wanted to see me annually.
Four years later
Last spring, my mom had a biopsy that revealed a basal cell carcinoma on the right side of her face. On the surface, the lesion measured smaller than a dime. When removed, doctors found the lesion was much deeper and wider than it appeared on the surface. It ended up being about the size of a half dollar.
She opted against plastic surgery or skin graft and instead undertook extensive, daily wound care for nearly six months. This was no light undertaking. She had to perform sterile cleanings and wound care multiple times a day (sometimes even more frequently when she performed activities that made her sweat or caused any possible irritation to the area). Plus, it required that she wear a small bandage on her face the entire six-month period.
I’m happy to report that all her hard work paid off because you can barely see the scar (she applies a scar cream and vitamin E every day).
I thought she applied a lot of sunscreen when I was growing up, but it’s a whole other level now. She applies sunscreen on her face and hands during daytime hours no matter what the weather is outside. In addition to the sunscreen, she wears lightweight SPF long-sleeve shirts, a bandanna around her neck and a broad-brimmed SPF 50 hat. She never exposes her arms, chest or back when outdoors, no matter how hot or humid.
My mom goes twice annually to the dermatologist and has any precancerous lesions frozen off with liquid nitrogen. She prefers this procedure to the chemical peeling or the photodynamic therapy. The freezing causes small blisters that heal within a few weeks, but these biannual procedures, plus her sunscreen routine and “keep-covered” regimen have been very effective for her.
I know I should use sunscreen more frequently, but now I apply it every time I run, hike, swim or do any outdoor activity. I almost always wear a hat when I run, and I always wear a wide-brimmed hat when I’m at the beach or pool. Often I keep it on when I get in the water.
Since I began going to the dermatologist for my annual body scans, I have had one mole removed and seen four new ones appear. I’ve learned to keep a watchful eye on the moles on my feet, and the little moles that grow further out from my body (like skin tags) are cosmetic and not dangerous.
More than anything, I’ve learned that a bit of smelly sunscreen and a yearly appointment can really go a long way.
- Make body scans with a dermatologist part of your annual wellness check-up routine.
- During daily outdoors activities like walking the dog, wear sunscreen on your face even if it is cloudy or an off-season.
- Mom’s recommendation: Neutrogena Clear Face Broad Spectrum SPF 30 (SPF 55 is available too). It absorbs well and is non-greasy.
- If you’re an active outdoors person, wear sweat-resistant sunscreen on all body parts exposed to sun.
- Mom’s recommendation: Generic brands of Sport Broad Spectrum SPF 50 that are water and sweat resistant up to eighty minutes. Alba Botanica Natural Very Emollient Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 45 is also good, but this brand tends to come in small, expensive quantities.
- Buy and wear a SPF shirt for full days outdoors.
- Mom’s recommendation: Coolibar is lightweight and great for hot summer days.
- Always wear a hat. The bigger the better, and consider wearing one with a full brim to protect the back of your neck.
Lili’a Uili Neville Contact
Lili’a Uili Neville is a runner, environmentalist and health nut. Lili’a is the communications director in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity at UT Knoxville. When she’s not at work, she is underestimating how long it will take her to complete a craft project, telling funny stories about her dog and cat or having a classy date night with her husband.