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Debunking Common Myths About UV Protection and Skin Cancer

8 min read

Debunking Common Myths About UV Protection and Skin Cancer

Many sun protection and skin cancer myths seem logical, so it’s only natural they’re often believed. However, it is very important you know the facts. 

Here is a look at several common myths about sun exposure, UV protection, and skin cancer. Get the truth about each of these so you can protect yourself from further damage.

  1. You don’t get sunburned on a cloudy day
  2. A base tan protects your skin
  3. Having dark skin protects you from cancer
  4. You only need sunscreen in hot weather
  5. Tanning beds are safer than natural sunlight 
  6. Avoiding outdoor activities protects you from skin cancer
  7. Skin cancer just isn’t that serious

Myth #1 - You Don’t Get Sunburned on a Cloudy Day

Fact: Even if you can’t see the sun in the sky, your skin is still exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation — the electromagnetic energy that reaches Earth from the sun. Up to 80% of the sun's UV rays penetrate even the heaviest cloud cover. 

UV rays age your skin, damage your eyes, and cause skin cancer. There are three types of ultraviolet rays produced by the sun: UVA, UVB, and UVC. The two to keep in mind are UVA and UVB since those are the only rays whose wavelengths are long enough to reach the earth’s surface. UVA rays are present whenever there is daylight, while the intensity of the UVB rays varies by location and season.

UVA rays penetrate cloud cover, and their intensity does not change. Because of this, unprotected skin is vulnerable to the accumulation of damage over the years. That's why wearing sunscreen year-round is important, even on cloudy days. 

Myth #2 - A Base Tan Protects Your Skin

Fact: A tan is a natural defense mechanism and the visible result of your body reacting to sun 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. Since UV rays are known to cause cancer, exposing your body to these rays to achieve a tan harms your skin.

If anything, a tan might slightly — very slightly — reduce your risk of getting sunburn from sun 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. Most of the sunscreens we use today to keep from burning are a minimum of SPF15 but should be higher if you have fair skin. A base tan will not protect the skin from sun damage or skin cancer. Learn more by reading our blog: What Does SPF Mean?  

Myth #3 - Having Dark Skin Protects You from Cancer

Fact: While melanin does reduce sunburn risk, it does not protect against skin damage or the possibility of developing skin cancer. The myth that darker-skinned people can’t get sunburned likely stems from dark skin having more melanin than light skin, which makes it harder to see a burn. Since dark skin has more melanin, it can filter nearly twice as much UV radiation as fair skin. But sunburns still happen, which can lead to skin cancer. Use sunscreen –no matter your skin color – when outdoors for more than a few minutes.

The false sense of security from having a deeper skin color 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.

Related blog: Are People of Color Safe From Skin Cancer? 

Myth #4 - Sunburns Only Happen in the Summer Months

Fact: Some of the worst sunburns happen when people believe temperatures are too cool for the sun to damage their skin. It’s important to remember the sun provides light and heat. The heat of the sun is created by infrared radiation. Light is the result of ultraviolet radiation. While there may be slightly less infrared radiation on a cooler day, you still have exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which causes skin damage. That's why wearing sunscreen is important in every temperature and all year round.

It's also important to protect your eyes. For those of us in Virginia, this may be obvious when you’re near the water to help block the reflection. But remember, on cloudy days and when temperatures are cooler, your eyes can also be damaged by UV light. 

Once you remember the damaging rays of the sun do not create heat but can cause damage to your skin and eyes, it will be much easier to remember to wear sunscreen when temperatures drop.

It’s also a good idea to protect your lips from sunburn by using a lip balm with SPF in it. Reapply it after you eat or drink to be sure you don’t end up with burned lips – skin cancer can develop there too!

Myth #5 - Tanning Beds are Safer Than Natural Sunlight

Fact: UV rays from any source cause skin damage, wrinkles, collagen loss, and skin cancer. Many people believe the artificial lights used in tanning salons are safer than sunlight, but this belief can be very dangerous for your skin. 

Every time you visit a tanning salon, your risk of melanoma increases. Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially young women. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, more people will develop skin cancer from salon tanning than from lung cancer due to smoking. A history of tanning bed use increases your risk of basal cell carcinoma.

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

Fact: 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 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.

Trying to avoid sunlight is nearly impossible and unnecessary. You can, however, develop better skin protection habits, such as using sunscreen and reapplying it every few hours, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, covering exposed skin, and wearing sunglasses.

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

Fact: While some forms of skin cancer are easy 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. Learn more about treatment options for skin cancer.

Developing a Plan to Protect Your Skin

The effects of sun damage are gradual, adding 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:

  • Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen product of at least SPF 15 or higher that blocks UVA and UVB rays 
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure for the best protection
  • Consider using UV detection stickers. One small, stick-on dot can be placed on your body before applying sunscreen. Rub the sunscreen over it, and the colored dot will disappear. As the sunscreen wears off, the color of the dot will reappear, which means it’s time to reapply. If you don’t have the stickers, aim to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours -– or after coming out of the water.
  • Consider wearing a large-brimmed hat and darker lightweight fabric to add an additional layer of protection when you are outside 
  • Avoid UV exposure of tanning salons by using self-tanning products

Read our blogs How to Read a Sunscreen Label and Common Sunscreen Mistakes to get the most out of your sunscreen. 

How to Detect Skin Changes

Performing regular self-examinations of your skin is another way to be diligent. Be sure you know how to identify the early signs of skin cancer

It’s recommended you look out for any “ugly” or abnormal marks that look different from the other moles or blemishes on your skin. Following the ABCDE rule is helpful in detecting potential melanomas. 

Watch this video to learn about the ABCDE Warning Signs of Melanoma Skin Cancer. 

As you notice anything new on your skin, document it. There are apps available on your phone, or you can use your phone camera and notes program to track changes from month to month.

Skin Cancer Care at Virginia Oncology Associates

If you or a loved one was diagnosed with skin cancer, it’s a good idea to have it checked out by an oncologist after the dermatologist removes the area of concern. 

Virginia Oncology Associates specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer, including melanoma and various types of non-melanoma skin cancer. With cancer center locations spanning southeast Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, we are committed to improving lives by providing personalized, compassionate, comprehensive care.

Find More Skin Cancer Education from Virginia Oncology Associates


Watch this short video as a reminder of how to stay sun safe.