Skin cancer myths could increase your risk. Get the facts.
With summer well underway, the importance of using sunscreen might seem obvious by now. And it is – to those not suffering from misconceptions about skin cancer. Those misconceptions, or myths, can end up raising the risk of skin cancer for some people.
Understanding this, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has deemed July to be Ultraviolet (UV) Safety Awareness Month. Such commitment is needed. Skin cancer continues to be the most common type of cancer in the United States – accounting for nearly half of all cancers – and UV rays from the sun are the main cause of it.
Both UVA and UVB rays can damage skin and cause skin cancer. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays, which can damage the DNA in skin cells. If the damage affects the DNA genes that control skin cell growth, skin cancer can develop.
Knowing the facts about sun exposure and skin cancer prevention is crucial in reducing the risk of skin cancer. But a number of misconceptions about skin cancer can make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
City of Hope dermatologist Jae Jung, M.D., Ph.D, sets the record straight about several common skin cancer myths.
Myth: People with darker skin can’t get sunburned or develop skin cancer.
“People of every skin type get skin cancer,” said Jung. “Patients with darker skin types are at more risk because they tend to ignore signs that would prompt fair skin patients to go see a dermatologist. They are also at higher risk for rare melanoma subtypes including acral (fingers, toes, nails) and mucosal (oral and gentital mucosa).”
Myth: People can’t get sun-induced damage on a cloudy, overcast day.
Just because people can’t see the sun doesn’t mean they're safe from the sun’s damaging rays. “You can easily burn on cloudy days,” said Jung. “The risk is generally higher because you don’t seek shade as readily when it is not sunny. Up to 80 percent of the UV can penetrate cloud cover and in some instances where there is haze, UV can increase.”
Myth: Tanning beds are safer than lying out in the real sun.
When compared to people who have never tanned indoors, indoor tanners have a higher risk of all forms of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. “Tanning beds are not regulated and it is not possible to tell how much UV you are getting,” said Jung. “Almost every patient I have seen under the age of 30 with skin cancer has a history of tanning bed use.”
Myth: Skin cancer only appears on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun.
Skin cancer can be found in places on the body that have limited sun exposure. Melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer — can be found in the oral and genital mucosa. Other skin cancers, especially HPV-induced squamous cell, can also be found in sun-protected areas, said Jung.
Myth: People with no family history of skin cancer don’t need to worry about it.
Just because you don’t have a family history of skin cancer, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. “Although family history increases your risk, the majority of patients who get skin cancer do not have any family history,” said Jung.
Myth: Significant sun exposure is needed for that daily dose of vitamin D.
Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system, but the sun isn’t the only source of this fundamental nutrient. “The human body cannot distinguish between vitamin D obtained through oral supplementation and vitamin D produced in the skin in response to sun,” said Jung. The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests people get their recommended daily amount of vitamin D from food sources such as oily fish, fortified dairy products and cereals and from supplements.
Myth: Only elderly people get skin cancer.
More and more young people are being diagnosed with skin cancer — especially melanoma. “I have seen patients as young as 14 with melanoma and patients in their 20s for basal cancer,” Jung said. “Any mole that is changing size, shape and color (ABCDEs of melanoma) or any sore that does not heal in four weeks should be evaluated. When skin cancer is small, excision is usually curative and there is very little morbidity. If it becomes larger, you risk disfiguring scars and systemic spread.”
Jung stresses that even modest exposure to the sun can cause cancer, and she encourages patients of all skin types to get regular skin exams. If you're unsure about your risk or about a suspicious lesion, talk to your doctor and go get checked out.