A woman applies sunscreen on her shoulder.
Sunscreen of SPF 30 or stronger is your best defense against the sun’s rays. It offers immediate protection from sunburn and also lowers the odds of running into bigger problems in the long run. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The skin is one of those organs we don’t pay much thought, until there’s a problem.

And when there’s a problem, there’s truly no ignoring it. Acne, wrinkles, hair growth, hair loss or worse—such as skin cancer—demand attention.

Fortunately, many of these issues are preventable. Often, it will depend on how early in life we decide to have a plan to maintain our skin.

Most of the time, our skin reflects our overall health and daily habits.

We’re most likely to enjoy good-looking, firm, healthy skin when we are hydrated and when we avoid excess sugar. We should also avoid cigarette smoke and take careful steps to protect our skin from too much sun exposure.

Skin care 101

Like all aspects of our health, skin requires daily care to look good and feel good.

The basics of skin care involve hydrating from the inside and moisturizing from the outside.

In taking care of women every day, I have learned how skin problems can affect my patients’ moods, self-image, desire to wear certain clothes, comfort putting on a bathing suit, self-confidence and sex drive.

In my experience, the most common skin issues are acne, hair growth on the upper lip or chin, or hair loss.

Women also struggle with wanting to go outdoors to get a tan, versus being rightly worried about skin cancer such as melanoma.

The best approach: Understand why these problems occur and learn about steps you can take to help improve outcomes.

Skin glands or follicles contain a hair and glands which make sebum. When all is working well, the sebum rises to the surface to keep the skin soft.

When the follicle is making more oil or sebum, it can get clogged and trap bacteria. When the contents become trapped, the follicle gets bigger. If it’s closed it turns white. If it’s open to air it turns black.

Acne tends to get worse with hormonal changes—during puberty and perimenopause, for instance, because of stimulation and enlargement of the skin glands by certain hormones, mainly androgens.

The birth control pill can sometimes help address acne problems because the oral estrogen causes the androgens to get bound up and unable to stimulate the hair glands.

Spironolactone is also a medication that can help with acne, as it blocks the testosterone receptor.

Acne can reappear in midlife because estrogen levels decrease and allow for more free testosterone.

Women who have more belly fat, especially with polycystic ovarian syndrome, often experience more acne because the pro-hormones store up in belly fat and get converted to testosterone.

You can help position yourself for better outcomes by focusing on basic habits within your control.

Keep your skin clean to avoid extra oil buildup, especially after sweating. Use mild cleansers and products with benzoyl peroxide to kill bacteria and dry up acne, or salicylic acid to clear out clogged pores.

Dermatologists also recommend you shampoo daily and avoid touching your face.

Your health care provider can prescribe stronger medications as needed. You should seek additional help if acne is affecting your self-esteem and self-confidence.

Hair growth

A common question women have is, “Why am I getting dark chin hair and lip hair?”

For some women it can be genetic, as it’s sometimes associated with certain ethnicities.

But if it’s a new change, it can be related to hormone imbalance such as perimenopause, or excess androgens due to polycystic ovarian syndrome or belly fat.

This condition of unwanted hair growth is called hirsutism. If it’s sudden or excessive, it can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as an ovarian tumor that secretes testosterone, an adrenal tumor, or an adrenal disease called Cushing’s syndrome.

It can be very frustrating to find that once a hair follicle gets turned on, it doesn’t stop and it has to be destroyed so that it stops producing dark hair.

The goal with medical treatment or weight loss is to stop new hairs from starting.

The frustrating part is that the hair growth cycle is three months long, so it can take months to see positive results from changes you make.

To prevent facial hair, the trick is to keep a healthy weight, follow a heart-healthy diet and, if chin hair appears, seek answers early in the process.

An ounce of prevention

In promoting healthy aging, it’s important we talk about how to prevent and identify skin cancer.

It can be helpful to remember that cancer is caused by cells that become damaged. It can grow out of control and spread to areas of the body where they don’t belong.

When skin cells are damaged by excessive sun rays, breaks in the cell genetic material occurs. If it’s not caught and corrected, the skin cell can start to grow out of control and develop into melanoma or basal cell cancer, depending on which cell is damaged.

Some sun exposure is healthy, as it can stimulate vitamin D production in the skin.

But too much sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., can put us at risk for more than burns or wrinkles.

It’s important to put on sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher. Repeat the application after two hours of exposure or after sweating or swimming.

More people will be diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined. By age 70, 1 in 5 people will be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer.

Indoor tanning is a proven cause of melanoma. A history of blistering burns is also more associated with skin cancer.

The best treatment is prevention. The second best is early detection.

Melanoma can occur in existing moles, but also in normal skin. It’s very important to do a frequent self-check and see your provider if you have any suspicion of cancer.

Remembering the acronym ABCDE could save your life:

  • Asymmetry (uneven shape)
  • Border (not sharp, edges fading into skin)
  • Color (uneven color—light or dark brown, black, or red)
  • Diameter (usually more than size of pencil eraser)
  • Evolution (changing spot, even in a previous stable mole)

It is possible to catch skin cancer early.