Debunking Common Myths About UV Protection and Skin Cancer

Categories: Cancer Prevention, Skin Cancer

November 13, 2019

Since many sun protection and skin cancer myths seem logical many people what they hear without verifying the information. But, it is very important to be sure that you have the facts.

Here is a look at several common myths about UV protection and skin cancer. Identifying the myths and accepting the facts can help protect your health.

Myth #1 - Clouds Protect Your Skin from Damage

Cloud Cover Facts:

The damaging effects of the sun are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation is the electromagnetic energy that reaches Earth from the Sun. UV rays age your skin, damage your eyes, and cause skin cancer. There are two types of ultraviolet rays to think about, UVB and UVA. While the intensity of UVB rays vary by location and season, UVA rays are present whenever there is daylight.

The intensity of UVA rays does not change. Because UVA rays penetrate cloud cover, leaving your skin unprotected allows skin damage to accumulate over the years. That's why it's important to wear sunscreen year-round, even on cloudy days. Up to 80 percent of the Sun's UV rays penetrate even the heaviest cloud cover. 

Myth #2 - A Base Tan Protects Your Skin

Base Tan Facts:

The belief that a base tan will reduce your risk of skin cancer is a common myth. Since UV rays are known to cause cancer exposing your body to these rays to achieve a tan does not protect your skin. The deepening skin tone many people think makes them "look healthy" is a symptom of skin damage. Exposing your skin to UV rays causes your skin to produce more melanin, the color pigments in your skin, which makes you look tan. A tan is a natural defense mechanism and the visible result of your body reacting to sun damage. 

What a tan might do is slightly, very slightly, reduce your risk of getting a sunburn from UVB exposure. The increased melanin in tanned skin only provides a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 2-4. This increases the amount of time you can spend in the sun without burning by only a few minutes. A base tan will not protect skin from sun damage or skin cancer.     

Myth #3 - Having Dark Skin Protects You from Cancer

Skin Color Facts:

This myth likely stems from the fact that dark skin has more melanin than light skin. Since dark skin has more melanin, it can filter nearly twice as much UV radiation. While melanin does reduce sunburn risk, it does not protect against skin cancer. No one is immune to skin cancer.

The false sense of security from having dark skin may explain why people with darker skin are more often diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. People diagnosed in later stages of the disease have a lower five-year survival rate than those diagnosed early.

Myth #4 - You Only Need Sunscreen in Hot Weather

Outdoor Temperature Facts:

The sun provides light and heat. The heat of the sun is created by infrared radiation. Light is the result of ultraviolet radiation. While infrared radiation creates warmth, it does not burn skin. But, it's the exposure to ultraviolet radiation, not heat, that causes sunburns, skin damage, and skin cancer. That's why wearing sunscreen is important in every temperature and all year-round.

Some of the worst sunburns happen when people believe that temperatures are too cool for the sun to damage their skin. Even when you are near the water where temperatures are cooler, or playing in the snow, it's important to protect your skin. Snow and water reflect UV rays which causes them to bounce back at you. Once you remember that the damaging rays of the sun do not create heat, it will be much easier to remember to wear sunscreen when temperatures drop.

Myth #5 - Tanning Beds are Safer Than Natural Sunlight

Tanning Bed Facts:

Many people believe the artificial lights used in tanning salons are safer than sunlight. This is a dangerous belief. UV rays from any source cause skin damage, wrinkles, collagen loss, and skin cancer.

With every visit to a tanning salon, your risk of melanoma increases. Melanoma is the second most common form of cancer for women between the ages 20 to 29. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, more people will develop skin cancer from salon tanning than lung cancer from smoking. A history of tanning bed use increases your risk of basal cell carcinoma.

Myth #6 - Avoiding Outdoor Activities Protects You from Skin Cancer

Sun-Avoidance Facts:

Avoiding the outdoors may reduce some of your UV exposure, but will not fully protect you from UV radiation. Glass can filter UVB rays, but the UVA rays still get through. You are still exposed to damaging UV rays while walking into a building, sitting near a window, or driving your car.

It's nearly impossible and unnecessary to avoid sunlight. Instead of avoiding the sun, make a habit of using sunscreen and reapplying it every few hours. You can increase your level of protection by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, covering exposed skin, and wearing sunglasses.

Myth #7 - Skin Cancer Just Isn't That Serious

Skin Cancer Facts:

Since skin cancer is highly treatable, some people believe skin cancer is curable 100 percent of the time. This is simply not true. While some forms of cancer are easier to treat, others can be quite aggressive and spread deeper into the skin or spread to other areas of the body.

When cancer in the pigmentation cells of your skin (melanoma) is caught and treated early it is most often curable. But it's important to know that once melanoma spreads treatment is more complicated.

Developing a Plan to Protect Your Skin

The effects of sun damage are cumulative meaning they add up over time. Knowing the facts about skin cancer can help you form a workable plan for safer sun exposure. Wearing sunscreen every day is an excellent place to start. Consider the following recommendations:

  • Invest in a broad-spectrum product that blocks UVA and UVB rays
  • Wear a daily sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher 
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure for best protection
  • Wear large brimmed hats and darker lightweight fabrics to add an additional layer of protection
  • Reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours, even products that contain high SPF
  • Avoid the UV exposure of tanning salons by using self-tanning products

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that we all perform regular self-examinations to help identify the early signs of skin cancer. Look for changes in the size, color, or shape, of a mole, the appearance of new skin growths, or skin sores that refuse to heal. Any suspicious symptoms should be evaluated by your doctor.  

Virginia Oncology Associates specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and blood disorders, including melanoma and various types of non-melanoma skin cancer. With locations spanning southeast Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, we are committed to improving lives by providing personalized, compassionate, state of the art care.

Find More Skin Cancer Education from Virginia Oncology Associates