According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Its current estimates suggest that 20% of the American population is likely to develop this disease in their lifetime and that approximately 9,500 new cases are recorded daily.
Most skin cancers, such as basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, are primarily caused by excessive sun or tanning bed exposure. Although these types of skin cancer are highly curable when detected and treated early, they still affect more than 3 million people yearly. Thus, it is important to know how to reduce your risk and protect yourself from its potentially fatal effects.
Unfortunately, there is so much contradictory information related to this subject, which is why skin cancer is often misunderstood. Get the truth behind some of these skin cancer myths through the following:
Myth #1: Dark-skinned people are not at risk of developing skin cancer.
Although having fair skin increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma (one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer), no ethnicity is an exception. Darker-skinned people like African American, Hispanic, and Asians can also develop malignancies and suffer from various forms of UV damage. Death rates are higher in darker-skinned people than lighter-skinned ones because their skin cancer is not detected until later stages. Other possible factors could be a lack of awareness and socioeconomic barriers.
In a review article, it was shown that 21% of melanoma cases in African American patients are detected when cancer has already spread to nearby lymph nodes, while 16% are diagnosed when cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes and other organs. Their skin cancer usually develops in body areas not commonly exposed to the sun—soles of the feet, palms of the hands, groins, and the inside of the mouth.
Therefore, people of all colors need to observe safe sun practices in their daily routine.
Myth #2: My routine does not include outdoor activities, so I’m not at risk of getting skin cancer.
Dermatologists find that even brief sun exposures—including walking around outdoor shopping centers during sun peak hours and driving with the sunroof open—can accumulate to produce significant damage for fair-skinned people. These brief cumulative exposures are linked to squamous cell carcinoma, as investigated by some studies. Though this type of skin cancer is less dangerous than melanoma, it still accounts for up to 20% of skin cancer deaths.
Thus, limiting sun exposure is very important to protect your skin against direct and indirect UV damages. Whether at home, at work, or on the road, putting a window film on your building can make a lot of change.
Myth #3: I need to get sun exposure to get vitamin D.
Although UVB radiation exposure promotes cutaneous production of vitamin D precursors, you don’t need to sunbathe in order to get this nutrient. This nutrient may be obtained just by your typical daily exposure—such as walking outdoors to get to places. In fact, the safest way to increase vitamin D levels in your body is through a balanced diet, which includes vitamin D-containing Whole Foods like fatty fish, egg yolks, spinach, and mushrooms, or taking a daily oral supplement.
Myth #4: A tanning bed is safer than direct UV rays from the sun.
Tanning beds emit the same ultraviolet rays as the sun, and in greater amounts—ten times more than the emitted rays of the sun during peak hours. This means that this tanning method will not exempt you from developing melanoma. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one indoor tanning bed session can increase melanoma risk by 20%, basal cell carcinoma by 29%, and squamous cell carcinoma by 67%.
For this reason, the US Food and Drug Administration requires warning labels on any kind of indoor tanning equipment.
Myth #5: When it comes to sunscreen, the higher the SPF, the better.
Although SPF protection increases as its value increases, the actual amount of UV rays absorbed doesn’t increase proportionately. SPF 30 is capable of absorbing up to 97% of the sun’s UV rays, SPF 50 absorbs only one percent more, and SPF 100 absorbs 99%. When choosing sunscreen, SPF 30 is already a good start. However, dermatologists still emphasize that the best protection is still staying out of the sun even if a higher SPF gives you a little extra protection.
Myth #6: There is no need to apply sunscreen in winter or on a cloudy day.
Sunny or cloudy, the UV rays of the sun are present year-round. Even under the clouds, the sun’s rays may still have damaging effects on your skin. This is also the case during winter. While it is true that the intensity of the sun is lower during the cold months, the snow has the ability to reflect the damaging rays of the sun, producing the same effects. Therefore, it is always better to use sunscreen outdoors, regardless of the weather.
Myth #7: Only older people get skin cancer.
Melanoma is the second most common form of cancer in individuals aged 15-29. While melanoma incidences occur greater among younger individuals, many other factors could increase one’s risk for skin cancer. The biggest factor among these is the UV exposure of a person throughout his lifetime, including childhood and adulthood.
Myth #8: People who tan easily and rarely burn will not get cancer.
There is no such thing as a healthy and safe suntan. As you expose yourself to the sun, your skin produces more melanin as a mechanism of damage protection. Every time your skin color changes after sun exposure, your risk of developing skin cancer also increases. This is also true for people who don’t easily tan or burn.
Myth #9: The damage is already done. It’s too late now to avoid skin cancer risk because I have been careless in my youth.
The estimate that the vast majority of a person’s lifetime sun damage occurred during childhood is not entirely true. Current research indicates that by age 22, only about 20% of a person’s sun damage in a lifetime has been accrued, and that every after a decade, a person acquires an additional 10%. This only implies that sun exposure prevention does not depend on age. Integrating sun-preventive practices even at a late age will help reduce further UV damage, and, thus your cumulative risk of developing various forms of skin cancer.
For other tips on how to reduce risk for skin cancer, check out Skin Cancer Risk Reducing Tips.