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Sun and skin cancer: Learn the truth

Focused on Health - July 2014

by Sara Taschery

Think you’re safe from skin cancer? It’s the most common cancer in the United States. And, it’s also one of the most preventable. The primary cause is too much sun or tanning bed cancer

“Many people have a false sense of security when it comes to their skin and sun safety,” says Dennis Hughes, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.

More than two million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. Most skin cancers, like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, are highly curable, but one form – malignant melanoma – is much more serious.

Luckily, you can prevent skin cancer if you know the truth about your risks and how to protect yourself.

1. Myth: Dark-skinned people don’t get skin cancer.

Truth: No one is immune to skin cancer. People of all skin colors, including African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, can develop skin cancer. “While melanoma occurs more frequently in lighter-skinned people, the death rates are higher in darker-skinned people,” Hughes says. “It’s not completely clear why this is, but we think it’s because many people with darker skin believe they aren’t at risk and seek treatment at a later stage.”

2. Myth: Only sun exposure causes skin cancer.

Truth: While sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer, additional causes include:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, like tanning beds and occupational equipment.
  • Family history of skin cancer.

Plus, people with fair skin and freckles, and multiple or unusual moles face a higher skin cancer risk. 

3. Myth: You should use sunscreen with SPF 100 to get extra protection.sunscreen

Truth: SPF protection doesn’t increase proportionately with the designated SPF number. SPF 30 absorbs 97% of the sun’s burning UV rays, while SPF 50 absorbs just slightly more – 98%. And, SPF 100 absorbs 99%. So, choose a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30. “It matters more that you use enough and apply it properly and frequently,” Hughes says. 

4. Myth: Sunscreen contains harmful chemicals.

Truth: The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs. The FDA considers sunscreens to be safe and effective. “Most commercial sunscreens are a mix of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are natural chemicals,” Hughes says. “And, sunscreen sits on the outermost layer of the skin, so isn’t absorbed into the body.” Not using sunscreen is far worse for your skin than any potential risk posed by its ingredients.

5. Myth: Only older people get skin cancer.

Truth: Your age doesn’t matter when it comes to skin cancer. What matters is your exposure to UV radiation. “Young teens are spending too much time in the sun unprotected or using tanning beds,” Hughes says. “So skin cancers, like basal cell and squamous cell, are now showing up in younger adults.”

6. Myth: A base tan prevents sunburns.

Truth: There’s no such thing as a safe tan or a tan that prevents sunburns. Tan skin is a sign of skin damage and increases your chances for cancer. “When UV light hits your skin, it damages the DNA of your skin cells,” Hughes says. 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. 

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

Truth: You should wear sunscreen regardless of whether the weather is warm and the sun is shining. Harmful UV rays are present year-round and, even in cloud coverage, can reach your skin and cause damage.

8. Myth: Tanning beds are safer than natural sunlight.

Truth: Tanning beds emit the same harmful UV rays as the sun. So use can cause skin cancer, including the deadliest form, melanoma. “Tanning salons claim tanning beds are safe because they use mostly UV-A rays,” Hughes says. “But UV-A rays are carcinogens and cause premature wrinkles, freckles and leathery skin.” New laws even prohibit tanning bed use in some states, including Texas, Louisiana, and California, by anyone under age 18.   

Practice skin safetybeach

Now that you’re skin cancer savvy, take these steps to prevent it

  • Wear sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30, broad spectrum and water resistant. Apply liberally every two hours.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and apparel with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) as high as 50.
  • Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s UV rays are strongest.  
  • Check your skin monthly using the ABCDEs of melanoma guide.

“Be smart about your sun exposure, know your risks and keep track of spots on your skin,” Hughes says. Your skin smarts could save your life.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center