Year-Round Skin Care: 10 Misconceptions About Skin Cancer

Part 1
March 4, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2016

The sun on winter ski slopes can be just as dangerous to your skin as the sun on summer beaches. Dr. Ariel Ostad, a board certified dermatologist and assistant professor in the department of dermatology at New York University, explains common misconceptions about skin cancer in this first part of a multi-part series on how to protect yourself from skin cancers.

Dr. Ariel Ostad: Here are the top 10 most common misconceptions that patients have about skin cancer:

1. Only white people get skin cancer.

False. Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate, and anyone can be susceptible. Although people with lighter skin are at increased risk, skin cancer can turn up on those with darker skin too.

In fact, skin cancer is what took the life of famed reggae singer Bob Marley when he was just 36 years old: What was thought to be a soccer injury under his toenail was actually melanoma.

2. You only have to worry about odd-looking moles.

False. It’s true that an abnormal-looking mole can be a sign of skin cancer, but there are other symptoms of skin cancer too:

• A lump or growth that is small, smooth, shiny, pale, or waxy.
• A lump or growth that is firm and red.
• A growth that bleeds or develops a crust or scab.
• A red or brown spot or patch of skin that is rough, dry, scaly, or itchy.

To be safe, any new, changing, growing, bleeding, or itching skin growths, including suspicious moles, should be checked out by your doctor.

3. Tanning salons are a safe tanning alternative.

False. Tanning beds and sunlamps still expose your skin to harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the main risk factor for skin cancer. Tanning beds may be even more dangerous than natural sunlight since the radiation used in the machines can be stronger, and there are no substances (like ozone in the atmosphere) to act as a filter.

4. You don’t have to worry about sunscreen on cloudy days.

False. Up to 80 percent of the sun’s dangerous rays can pass through clouds, so even on a cloudy day, you can be burned. Make sure you apply sunscreen and protect yourself no matter what the weather conditions.

5. All sunscreen works the same.

False. Some sunscreens protect against skin cancer better. When choosing a sunscreen lotion or spray, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters both UVB and UVA radiation (different types of light that damage skin) and has an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30.

Also, remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours throughout the day and more often if you are sweating or swimming.

6. A tan can protect you from skin cancer.

False. A tan may lower your risk of sunburn, but not your risk of skin cancer. A suntan is a sign of skin damage—it’s your skin’s attempt to repair sun damage and protect itself from future injury. During this process, problems can occur at the cellular level, and skin cancer can develop.

7. You can’t repair past sun damage.

False. It is never too late to start protecting your skin. While there is no guarantee that you can totally reverse the effects of past sun damage, you can give your skin time to heal by taking steps to prevent further skin damage. Always wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, even in the winter and on cloudy days.

8. Windows protect us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

False. While glass does block most UVB rays, UVA radiation can get through. This means that even indoors or in a car with the windows up, you can tan or burn.

9. I should apply sunscreen as soon as I get to the beach.

False. Apply at least one hour before you enter the sun. You need to give the lotion a chance to absorb. If you wait, you’ve already been exposed to harmful direct sunlight in the time it took you to walk from your car to the sand.

10. People who’ve never seen a sign of serious sun damage don’t need to start worrying now.

False. The skin is constantly changing. Exposure to UV radiation from the sun and indoor tanning devices can cause skin cancer at any age, and the risk for developing a precancerous skin condition called AK increases as you get older.

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