Most of us love sunshine, but sunshine doesn’t reciprocate. Even limited exposure to sun can damage your skin, leaving you vulnerable to several kinds of skin cancer, from relatively harmless basal cell carcinoma to potentially deadly melanomas.
Mistaken ideas about when sun can harm us and about protection add to our danger. Below are common myths about skin cancer and the facts that can help you shield your skin.
Myth: Dark skin protects you from skin cancer.
Busted: “Anyone can get skin cancer, even the darkest skinned people,” says Darrell Rigel, MD, clinical professor of Dermatology at NYU Medical Center. “But the fairer you are, the greater the risk.”
Myth: A base layer of tan shields you from skin damage.
Busted: Tanned skin is damaged skin. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation harms the skin’s DNA, which in turn stimulates melanin, or pigment cells, darkening the skin. Says Rigel, also a member and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology, “There’s no such thing as a safe tan.”
Myth: Only the sun can cause skin cancer.
Busted: “The sun’s ultraviolet light causes the majority of skin cancers,” says Rigel. “But tanning beds emit ultraviolet light 15 times stronger than normal sunlight. So, they are even more dangerous than sunlight.”
Myth: The higher the sun protection factor (SPF) in sunscreen, the safer your skin from UV rays.
Busted: Yes and no, says Rigel. SPF measures your protection from UV-B rays, the ones believed to cause burning, but not from UV-A rays believed to cause both burning and aging. So buying a sunscreen marked “broad spectrum,” which blocks both A and B rays is most important, says Rigel. Protection increases by small amounts the higher the rating. SPF 30 protects you from 97 percent of the sun’s rays; SPF 50 from 98 percent. “The problem is that people don’t apply enough [whatever the rating],” says Rigel. “It takes one ounce or a golf-ball size amount to cover your entire body.”
Myth: Sunscreen is all you need to protect your skin.
Busted: Sunscreen is only one of several key ways to protect your skin, says Rigel. Wear protective clothing such as long sleeves and pants, a hat with a brim and UV-light-blocking sunglasses. All clothing protects you from sun to some degree depending on fabric, dye and construction. Some clothes treated with sun-protective dye have an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating on their sale tags. You can also buy sun protection laundry products, available online and at big box stores.
Myth: Sunscreen chemicals are harmful.
Busted: “The amount of absorption is small,” says Rigel. “Every summer weekend, tens of millions use sunscreen, and we’re not seeing any issues related to its use.”
Myth: Age and skin cancer go hand-in-hand.
Busted: “The older you are, the greater your risk,” says Rigel. “But in the last ten years, we’ve been seeing teens, especially young women. That’s probably due to tanning beds. I call them ‘tanning coffins.’”
Myth: You have no skin cancer risk in winter, on cloudy days, or if you’re an indoor person.
Busted: Whenever you’re outdoors, you get some exposure to ultraviolet rays, says Rigel: “But nobody’s ever said you should be a vampire, coming out only at night. There are lots of benefits of being outdoors like exercise and fresh air. Just don’t lie in the sun to bake.”
Myth: Sun won’t harm you if you’re in a car.
Busted: “UV-B rays don’t go through glass so you get some protection,” says Rigel. “But UV-A rays do, so you can get some photoaging”– skin damage over time.” another argument for wearing sunscreen even when you’re just out for a ride.
Myth: Skin cancers aren’t deadly.
Busted: “Ten thousand Americans will die this year of melanoma,” says Rigel. “And if you don’t treat squamous skin cancer, you can die, although that’s rare.” Guarding your skin protects your health—and your life.