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Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Focus

March 2016

Common Skin Disorders


  • Risk factors for skin diseases and conditions are many, including family history, the type of skin one has, occupation, the amount of outdoor exposure, and how we treat our skin.
  • The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma, with melanoma being the most serious.
  • Indoor tanning increases the risk of cancer later in life by 75 percent if the tanning is done as a teenager.

The skin is the largest organ in the human body and serves many functions. It controls body temperature and provides protection from bacteria and viruses. Yet skin disorders are common among patients of all ages, and many will require the expertise of a dermatologist.

“Dermatology is the medical specialty that specializes in the treatment of skin, hair, and nails,” says Ira L. Skolnik, M.D., Ph.D., president of the Massachusetts Academy of Dermatology, the statewide professional association of medical doctors specializing in dermatology.

Dr. Skolnik, who practices at Family Dermatology in Concord, Mass., and Pamela Weinfeld, M.D., vice president of the Academy and founder of Dermatology and Skin Care Associates in Wellesley, appear on the March edition of Physician Focus to discuss common skin disorders and what patients can do to take care of their skin. Hosting this edition is primary care physician Mavis Jaworski, M.D.

Just how common are skin disorders?

“Most people in their lifetime,” says Dr. Weinfeld, “are going to have some issues with their skin, whether it’s dry skin or eczema as an infant, acne as a teenager, or wanting to care for their skin as they get older.”

“The skin is the largest organ in the body,” adds Dr. Skolnik, “and people often forget that. It’s an organ like any other that we need to take care of.”

The physicians note that the type of skin one has will determine a lot of the different conditions a person will face in their lifetime. People are born with different skin colors, and with different levels of pigment in their skin. Some have drier skin than others; some have oily skin. People with less pigment in their skin, for example, have a higher risk of skin cancer than those with more pigment.

Also contributing to the risk of skin disease is family history. A history of skin cancer, for example, particularly in the immediate family, raises an individual’s risk of getting the disease.

Other factors that can raise the risk of skin conditions include what an individual does to his or her skin (such as moisturizing or tanning) and the amount of outdoor exposure the skin gets, either for leisure activities (such as golfing or tennis) or occupational requirements (roofers, airline pilots and x-ray technicians who may be exposed to more radiation). All of those factors, whether natural, behavioral, or occupational, combine to contribute to the healthy or unhealthy state of our skin.

One factor both physicians are quick to advise patients about is tanning, particularly indoor tanning, and especially for teenagers. Both are steadfast opponents of what they consider “artificially changing” one’s skin.

“Tanning increases the risk for cancer later in life,” says Dr. Skolnik. “We dermatologists do not consider a tan to be a healthy looking aspect of someone’s skin.”

They note that tanning as a teenager increases the risk of skin cancer by 75 percent. The risk is so great, in fact, that dermatologists, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, have successfully pushed for state laws prohibiting indoor tanning by anyone under the age of 18.

The physicians’ most important advice to patients is clear and simple, and, like most guidance in health care focuses on prevention: wear protective clothing, wear sunblock with a minimum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30, and check your skin regularly.

“The skin is an organ you can actually see,” says Dr. Skolnik. “It’s not like hypertension or heart disease where you can’t see it. If you see something on your skin that looks different or if it worries you, or if you’re not sure, that’s something to have checked by your physician.”

Watch the above video for more conversation, including discussion about the three most common skin cancers (basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma); the causes and treatments for acne and eczema; the proper way to use sunscreen lotion; the differences among ointments, creams, and lotions in treatments for the skin; and additional suggestions on protecting and caring for skin.

MMS/Richard Gulla

Skin Care Physicians American Academy of Dermatology

American Skin Association

Melanoma Foundation New England

National Institutes of Health

The Mayo Clinc

"Common Skin Disorders" PSA

Left to right: Mavis Jaworski, M.D.; Pamela Weinfeld, M.D.; Ira Skolnik, M.D., Ph.D.
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