Summer’s just around the corner. As you prepare for long days on the beach, in the yard and at the pool, remember to slather on sunscreen. Sunburns hurt—and increase your skin cancer risk.
But many people still don’t protect their skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Some think a little color isn’t so bad; others believe they’re too young to get skin cancer. But they’re wrong. And that can bea dangerous mistake. Take a look at some of the most common myths about skin cancer, sunburns and sunscreen:
- Fiction: Skin cancer only appears on areas frequently exposed to sun.
Fact: Skin cancer tends to develop on exposed areas like the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands and legs, but it can also be found on your palms, beneath your nails, between your toes and in the genital area.
- Fiction: People who tan or have dark skin don’t have to worry about skin cancer.
Fact: Skin cancer affects people of all skin tones, though those who are fair-skinned and freckle or burn easily are more susceptible.
- Fiction: Skin cancer only affects older people.
Fact: The condition usually appears in middle age, but the number of cases of basal cell and squamous cell cancers is rising fastest in those under age 40.
- Fiction: Getting a “base” tan will protect your skin.
Fact: A tan is your body’s way of responding to injury from UV radiation. Pigment cells in your skin make more pigment to protect your skin from further damage. So in your quest to prevent damage, you’re actually getting a head start on the destruction.
- Fiction: Tanning booths are a safe alternative to the sun.
Fact: Tanning beds emit ultraviolet B (UVB) and high doses of ultraviolet A (UVA). Both can cause damage (wrinkles, age spots) and skin cancer, but UVA is particularly harmful. It penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, weakens the immune system and increases the risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Indoor tanning can also cause eye damage, such as cataracts and eye cancer.
- Fiction: All sunscreens are the same.
Fact: You’ll find many types, but the best kind is one that is water-resistant, provides broad-spectrum coverage against UVA and UVB radiation and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Look for a lotion with the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) Seal of Recognition, which means the product meets the organization’s sun-protection criteria.
- Fiction: Wear sunscreen and you can spend unlimited time outdoors.
Fact: Sunscreen doesn’t provide complete protection, and its effectiveness is diminished if you don’t apply enough or don’t reapply as instructed. Experts recommend you put sunscreen on 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside and reapply every two hours—every 80 minutes if you’re in water or sweating heavily. One ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, is suggested for the average-size adult. Coat your lips with a lip balm that has an SPF of 15 or higher. Limit outdoor time during the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and consider protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants and wide-brimmed hats.
- Fiction: You don’t need sunscreen if it’s cloudy, if you’re in the car all day or during the winter.
Fact: Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays still get through. Glass filters out UVB rays, which cause sunburns, but UVA can still reach unprotected skin. UV radiation is lower in the winter, but snow reflection can double your exposure—especially in thin mountain air.
- Fiction: A sunscreen with SPF 30 blocks twice as much UV light as one with SPF 15.
Fact: Double the number doesn’t equal double the protection. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays; SPF 15 filters out 93 percent. So while you may not be getting double the UV light protection, going with SPF 30 does give you some additional security. The SPF tells you how long a sunscreen will protect you. For example, if you usually burn in 15 minutes, a sunscreen with SPF 15, if applied properly, will give you 225 minutes of protection (15x15). An SPF 30 will give you 450 minutes—but you should still reapply every two hours. Be careful, though, as the SPF only applies to UVB—it doesn’t tell you how much cancer-causing UVA is getting through.
- Fiction: You’ll become vitamin D deficient if you use sunscreen.
Fact: Your body needs sunlight to make vitamin D, and sunscreen can decrease vitamin D production. But just 10 minutes daily of unprotected exposure is enough to ramp up vitamin D levels, and you likely get the recommended amount by running a few errands without wearing sunscreen. So don’t actively seek out the sun. Instead, speak with your healthcare provider about vitamin D supplements.