Debunking Skin Cancer Myths

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. May is skin cancer awareness month and we debunk some common myths about this disease and provide some tips to reduce your risk.

Woman applying sunscreen on her shoulder

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. May is skin cancer awareness month and we debunk some common myths about this disease and provide some tips to reduce your risk.

Before we start myth-busting, let’s get clear on what is skin cancer and the dangers it carries. Skin cancer happens when skin cells start growing rapidly and uncontrollably. Your skin has 3 layers: epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. The epidermal bottom layer or basal layer creates new skin cells that move to the top layer. These cells also contain melanin, which multiplies to protect our skin from harsh sun exposure. Melanin is often called the body’s natural sunscreen. Sometimes, these cells can multiply uncontrollably, causing a tumor.

Myth 1: Skin cancer is not a deadly disease.

Fact: More than 11,500 people in the United States are expected to lose their lives from melanoma and other nonepithelial skin cancers this year. Most deaths are due to melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Myth 2: A tanning bed is safer than UV rays from the sun.

False: Exposure to ultraviolet light from tanning beds can impact the skin in a variety of ways – including wrinkles, sun spots, or freckles. And for one in every five Americans, this exposure can lead to skin cancer. The use of tanning beds and sun lamps is hazardous because the UV radiation they deliver can damage your skin. Dermatologists highly recommend not using tanning beds and sun lamps. There is growing evidence they may increase your risk of developing melanoma. If you are seeking a tanned appearance, consider sunless tanning products.

Myth 3: A base tan prevents sunburns.

False: There’s no such thing as a safe tan or a tan that prevents sunburns. When ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning booth hit your skin, they damage the DNA of your skin cells. To protect your cells, your body sends melanin, or pigment, to the surface of your skin. So, your skin gets color at the expense of your health.

Tanning starts when the body senses that UV damage is occurring. Your body’s skin cells are trying to do the best they can to minimize any further damage but it’s not enough if you get more sun.

Sunburn happens when the UV rays are more than the skin can handle and repair.

Myth 4: People who tan easily and rarely burn will not get cancer.

False: There is no such thing as a healthy suntan. Any change in your natural skin color is a sign of skin damage. Evidence suggests tanning greatly increases your risk of developing skin cancer. The increase in skin pigment called melanin, which causes your skin to tan, is a sign of damage. Once the skin is exposed to UV radiation, it increases the production of melanin in an attempt to protect the skin from further damage. The increase in melanin may cause your skin tone to darken over the next 48 hours.

Every time your skin color changes after sun exposure, your risk of developing sun-related ailments increases. The sun’s rays called ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays (UVA and UVB rays), damage your skin. This leads to early wrinkles, skin cancer, and other skin problems. Over time, being in the sun often – even if you don’t burn – can lead to skin cancer.

Myth 5: Skin cancer only affects Caucasians and those with lighter skin.

Fact: Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, though cases are most prevalent in those with lighter skin. People with fair skin are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer, especially fair-skinned individuals with freckles, blue or green eyes, and blond, red, or light brown hair. However, everyone is at risk of developing skin cancer and should take precautions, including seeking annual skin cancer screenings with a physician. Though melanoma is less frequently diagnosed among African Americans, Latinos, and Asians than Caucasians, when found, it is frequently in the late stages.

In addition, cases of skin cancer in people with darker skin are often not detected until later stages, when it is more dangerous.

Myth 6: You don’t need to wear sunscreen in winter or on a cloudy day.

False: While it is true that the sun’s intensity is lower during the winter, snow reflects the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn or damage to your skin. Even under cloud cover, the sun can harm your skin and eyes and cause long-term damage. You should protect your skin from UV radiation even when it is not warm or sunny. Harmful UV rays are present year-round and can reach your skin and cause damage even through clouds.

Myth 7: Sunscreen contains harmful chemicals.

Fact: The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs. The FDA considers sunscreens to be safe and effective.

We have lots of evidence that shows that too much sun can cause skin cancer and very little that shows current sunscreen ingredients cause any significant harm.

Those who are wary can try, simple mineral sunscreens that contain zinc or titanium oxide.

And remember, you can still be sun smart by covering up, avoiding peak hours of sun exposure, and limit time in the sun.

Myth 8: Teenagers and young people don’t have to worry about skin cancer. It only affects older adults.

False. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer in young adults, ages 25 to 29. It is also increasing faster in women ages 15 to 29 than in men in the same age group.

You should check your skin monthly and be alert to changes in the number, size, shape, or color of spots on your skin or sores that do not heal. Pay special attention to moles – especially moles that have recently changed, bleed, or itch.

Myth 9: I need to get sun exposure to get vitamin D.

You don’t need to bake in the sun to get the vitamin D you need to stay healthy. You get enough of this essential nutrient from typical daily exposure and food.

Myth 10: Only UVB rays cause skin cancer

The sun gives off two main ultraviolet rays – UVA and UVB. There are other forms of ultraviolet light, for example, tanning beds, and black lights. Most of the UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer. But the rays that do come through are more dangerous and without sunscreen, can cause serious, long-term skin damage. UVB rays also contribute to more deadly forms of cancer like melanoma. But that doesn’t mean that UVA rays get off scot-free. UVA rays give us that immediate, golden tan. But these rays can penetrate the skin deeper than others and can even damage DNA. UVA rays have been proven to create some skin cancers. Take both forms seriously, using the right protective clothing and sunscreen at all times.

Practice Skin Safety

You can take these steps to reduce your skin cancer risk.

  • Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s UV rays are strongest.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and clothes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) as high as 50.
  • Wear sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30, broad-spectrum, and water-resistant. Apply liberally every two hours.
  • Check your skin regularly and call your dermatologist right away if you have any changes.

If you are high risk, you should have a full-body skin examination at least once a year. If you see a new or changing spot, consult your dermatologist right away. Early detection gives you the best chance for a cure with the most minimal treatment.

The Department of Dermatology at UConn Health offers highly specialized dermatological care for patients of all ages in a welcoming and confidential practice and includes the Cutaneous Oncology Center & Melanoma Program.

Sources: American Academy of Dermatology, American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Skin Cancer Foundation, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration