Busting the Top 5 Skin Cancer Myths

So you thought you wouldn’t get a sunburn on a cloudy day. Or you were under the impression that sunscreens provide unlimited protection. Or you were absolutely sure that indoor tanning beds are safer than the sun.

Think again.

Dr. Agueda Hernandez, the medical director of the Family Medicine Center at West Kendall Baptist Hospital, helps bust these top myths about skin cancer.

1. The higher the SPF level, the more effective the sun protection.

Not necessarily. Sunscreens with high SPF (sun protection factor) should provide more protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is a primary cause of skin cancers. But how well you apply the sunscreen and how often is nearly as important. Read instructions carefully and, in most cases, you need to reapply after going for a swim. That said, the higher the SPF the better – until a certain point. For example, an SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93 percent of UVB (ultraviolet B shortwave rays) – the chief cause of skin reddening and sunburn. Meanwhile, an SPF 30 sunscreen blocks nearly 97 percent. But the advantage of sunscreens above SPF 50, which blocks about 98 percent of UVB rays is questionable.

2. I don’t need to worry about skin cancer until I get older. 

Wrong. The risk of basal and squamous cell skin cancers increases as people get older because of longer durations of exposure to the sun. However, younger people are more frequently being diagnosed with skin cancers probably because they are spending more time in the sun without protecting their skin properly. Recent government studies found that young people are still putting themselves at risk for skin cancer by getting sunburned and going to indoor tanning beds.

3. It’s not deadly.

Most skin cancers can be treated successfully if caught early. Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, accounting for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. Although melanoma accounts for only a small percentage of skin cancer cases, it’s far more dangerous than other types and causes most skin cancer deaths. It accounts for more than 9,000 of the 12,000-plus skin cancer deaths every year. Basal Cell Carcinoma(BCC) and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) are usually not fatal. BCC never spreads beyond the original tumor site. SCC can be deadly if it has metastasized, or spread, to other parts of the body.

4. Tanning beds give less UV exposure than the actual sun.

Wrong. Tanning salons use lamps that emit both UVA and UVB radiation, the two types of UV radiation that penetrate the skin. UV-B rays penetrate the top layers of skin and are most responsible for sunburns. UV-A rays penetrate to the deeper layers of the skin and are often associated with allergic reactions. This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first time said that tanning beds and sun lamps should not be used by people under the age of 18. The FDA is proposing such a warning for marketing materials and websites that promote indoor tanning. Regulators are also proposing that manufacturers meet certain safety and design requirements, such as timers and limits on radiation emitted. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, has reported that tanning devices emit UV radiation and are more dangerous than previously thought. Four years ago, the IARC moved these devices into the highest cancer risk category.

5. You can’t get sun damage on a cloudy day. 

Wrong. The sun’s UVA rays are so strong they can penetrate some clothing and even glass. Clouds are no deterrent. The Skin Cancer Foundation says that up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds. Many people get serious sunburns on overcast days because they think they don’t need sun protection. Cloudy days can be deceptive because they block much of the heat of thermal radiation, which people usually associate with high UV levels. So they don’t necessary feel a sunburn. Those who take ski vacations during winter months beware – snow can reflect up to 80 percent of UV rays, increasing exposure.

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