Eight Skin Cancer Myths You Need To Stop Believing
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S.—with current estimates suggesting that one in five Americans develop skin cancer by the time they hit 70. But with so much contradictory information out there on the subject, skin cancer is often misunderstood and sometimes, not taken seriously enough.
To help you better protect yourself against the potentially fatal disease, I spoke with a board-certified dermatologist to get the facts behind some of the biggest misconceptions about skin cancer:
MYTH #1 I’m not at risk of developing skin cancer in the winter months or when it’s cloudy because the sun isn’t as strong.
One of the most prevalent myths when it comes to sun protection is that you don’t need to apply sunscreen or sunblock on cold or cloudy days. “The harmful UV rays emitted by the sun—that are largely responsible for all of the major types of skin cancer, including melanoma—are present year-round. Also, they can penetrate through clouds and even glass windows,” tells Dr Julie Karen, a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in Mohs micrographic surgery, laser surgery and skin cancer. Bottom line: No matter what the forecast is, don’t skip sunscreen.
MYTH #2 The damage is already done. I was careless in my youth, it’s too late now to make any significant impact on my skin cancer risk.
“While we used to estimate that the vast majority of a person’s sun damage in a lifetime occurred during childhood, we now know that by age 22, only about 20% of your lifetime damage has been accrued,” says Dr Karen. “Each decade thereafter, you acquire an additional 10% of your lifetime damage. So, it’s not too late to make a difference at any age. Introducing sun-smart behaviours, even after years of carelessness, will help to reduce additional UV damage from occurring and thus reduce your cumulative risk of developing all forms of skin cancer,” she notes.
MYTH #3 I used SPF 50 this morning, so I can safely sunbathe now.
“Often patients will present to my office with tan lines or worse yet, sunburns and declare that they ‘wore SPF 50.’ So, I spend a ton of time educating them about what true ‘sun smart behaviour’ is,” says Dr Karen. “First of all, there is no such thing as a safe tan. Your skin thickens and darkens (i.e. tans) to protect itself from further damage caused by UV exposure. So even though a tan is less harmful than a blistering sunburn, once you see a tan, the damage is done,” tells the dermatologist. Secondly, “most people apply far less than 50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen required for adequate protection. So, the SPF on the label of your bottle is rarely achieved in daily practice,” Dr Karen points out. “You should apply at least one ounce (a shot glass full or golf ball-sized) of sunscreen from head to toe, twenty minutes before going into the sun. And reapply an equally generous amount every two hours or sooner after swimming or perspiring,” she suggests. Though wearing sunscreen is a critical component of skin protection, it’s by no means a license to lie in the sun. Rather, sunscreen should be used in conjunction with a hat, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing, adds the skin specialist.
MYTH #4 I shouldn’t wear sunscreen because sun exposure on my bare skin is essential to boost my Vitamin D levels.
“Indeed, exposure of the skin to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation is responsible for cutaneous production of vitamin D precursors,” says Dr Karen. However, it’s important to note that the beneficial effects of exposure to UVB radiation cannot be separated from its harmful effects. “UV radiation from the sun is a known carcinogen that is responsible for DNA damage that results in skin cancer,” tells the dermatologist. Besides, photodamage also contributes to other skin concerns such as wrinkles, dark spots and redness. This is why intentional UV exposure to increase Vitamin D levels is ill-advised, says the skincare expert. The safest way to prevent Vitamin D deficiency is to eat a balanced diet that includes whole foods rich in Vitamin D (such as fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, spinach, etc.) and takes a daily oral supplement, suggests Dr Karen.
MYTH #5 Dark-skinned people aren’t at risk of developing skin cancer.
“Although fair skin, light eyes, light hair, the tendency to freckle or burn are risk factors for developing melanoma (one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer), no ethnicity is completely immune,” says Dr Karen. Therefore, people of all colours, including those who have black or brown skin, need to integrate safe-sun practices into their daily routine.
MYTH #6 Tanning beds are safer than sunbathing.
Tanning booths and beds expose you to ultraviolet rays that can cause serious DNA damage, increasing your risk of developing skin cancer. “The amount of UV radiation emitted by these indoor lamps exceeds ten times that emitted by the sun during peak hours,” says Dr Karen. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67% and basal cell carcinoma by 29%.
MYTH #7 Makeup with sunscreen provides suitable protection against skin cancer.
“No. A dedicated sunscreen should be applied before putting on makeup, even if there is SPF within a makeup product—this is because often it’s not applied in adequate amounts to achieve the stated SPF on the product and therefore, won’t offer sufficient protection,” Dr Karen explains.
MYTH #8 If I want to get a mole checked out, I have to get surgery.
Having a suspicious mole or skin lesion observed by a dermatologist can be a scary thought. “While the traditional method of melanoma diagnosis involves a scalpel, that’s not the only option available. Dermatologists can use genomic assays like DermTech, which uses a smart sticker to painlessly and noninvasively diagnose atypical moles at an earlier stage. This option obviates a biopsy for every mole and can even be administered at home, once prescribed by your dermatologist,” notes Dr Karen. “Research what your dermatologist can provide and know that you’re not solely bound to surgical cutting and consequent scarring to have peace of mind,” adds the skin specialist.
Besides slathering on sunscreen before stepping outdoors, it is also important to follow other critical measures including seeking the shade—especially when the sun is at its strongest (between 10 a.m. and 4 a.m.) and wearing sunglasses and sun-protective clothing—which, unlike sunscreen, don’t lose their efficacy for a day, says Dr Karen.
It’s also important to examine your skin (and that of your partner/loved ones) for lesions that may be new or changing or appear to be distinct from all others. And lastly, get your skin examined by a dermatologist annually, suggests Dr Karen. “When caught in the earliest stage, skin cancer is completely curable. If however, it is not caught early, it can be deadly,” adds the skincare expert.