Skin cancer is the single most common cancer in the United States (US), with one in five Americans developing skin cancer over the course of their lifetime. While these numbers may seem a bit alarming, the good news is that skin cancer is both treatable and, unlike most cancers, almost entirely preventable.
Spring and summer are particularly enticing in the South, with bright warm days. Even the overcast days bring a pleasant breeze and (sometimes) lower humidity. The fact is, both types of days present potential skin cancer challenges. There are steps we can all take to limit our likelihood of developing skin cancer, but it is important to understand which commonly held beliefs will actually protect you and which are myths.
We have debunked a few of the more common myths about skin cancer here:
- Only sun exposure causes skin cancer. While long-term sun exposure can cause skin cancer, it is not the only cause. Other factors include a family history and increasing age. A weakened immune system can also be a contributing factor. But, one of the most common misconceptions is that tanning beds are a safe alternative to sun exposure. In fact, tanning beds emit more harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays than the sun.
- Your body requires exposure to the sun to absorb Vitamin D. While Vitamin D is important for your health, sun exposure is not the only way to get Vitamin D. Whenever possible, it is best to get Vitamin D from your diet or from supplements; as sun exposure increases your risk for skin cancer. Food sources of Vitamin D include some types of fish; foods with added Vitamin D, such as some cereals; juices; dairy products; and egg yolks.
- Dark skinned people cannot get skin cancer. While skin cancer occurs more frequently in lighter skinned people, it is important to keep in mind that people of all skin colors – African-American, Hispanic and Asian – are susceptible to skin cancer. No one is immune. In fact, darker skinned people have higher death rates because skin cancer frequently gets diagnosed later, at a more advanced stage.
- A “base tan” prevents sunburns. Not true. The fact is there is no “safe” tan. Whether you tan in natural sunlight or in a tanning bed, UV rays damage the DNA of your skin cells. Every time you tan, this damage is repeated.
- Only old people get skin cancer. Actually, melanoma, the most common form of skin cancer, is prevalent among young people between the ages of 15 to 29. The younger you are when you’re exposed, the more likely you are to develop skin cancer later in life, particularly if you have had a blistering sunburn at a young age.
- You only need sunscreen when it is sunny. While only a small percentage of Americans -14% of men and 30% of women – use sunscreen regularly, wearing sunscreen every day is always a good idea. Your skin can absorb UV rays when it’s overcast, cloudy or cold just as easily as it does on a bright summer day. Choose a minimum SPF 30 sunscreen. Higher SPF options don’t significantly increase your protection.
Now that we have cleared up a few confusing myths about your potential risk to skin cancer, let’s review the most helpful ways you can protect yourself:
- Avoid chronic sun exposure, including UVA and UVB radiation from tanning beds
- In particular, seek shade during the peak time of 10 am – 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
- If you must be outside, wear protective clothing.
- Always wear sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30, even when it’s cloudy or overcast.
- Protect your eyes, too, by wearing sunglasses and/or a wide-brimmed hat, particularly when you’re exposed to reflected rays from water, sand, glass or other bright surfaces.
- Protect children by applying sunscreen, even on cloudy days, and reapplying at least every two hours.
- Keep children under six (6) months out of direct sunlight exposure entirely.
- Talk to your doctor about safely adding Vitamin D to your diet through healthy food choices and/or vitamin supplement.
- Carefully examine your skin at least monthly for new or changing spots, and consult your doctor if you see anything unusual.
Unlike many other types of cancer, skin cancer is influenced by your own behavior. Take the steps you need to avoid it in the future, but also make sure you see your doctor to limit the impact of any previous exposure you’ve had. By taking evasive action, you can help protect yourself and your family from the most common cancers in the U.S.