Don't Buy Into These 15 Skin Cancer Myths
Over the years, you may have heard various things from well-meaning friends, family members, and colleagues about the deadly effects of skin cancer and how to prevent it. But what is the truth? We looked at some misconceptions about the disease to help you separate reality from myth, and also provide some helpful preventive tips. There's way more to it than just using sunscreen.
Some people think skin cancer isn't as dangerous as other types of cancer when, in fact, melanoma kills around 10,000 people in the United States annually, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Melanoma is often curable if detected early, but it can spread and become much more difficult to treat.
It's true that being in the sun is a strong risk factor, but it's not the only one, says Dr. Karyn Grossman, a well-known dermatologist. "I have patients who have baked in sun who don't have skin cancer, and those who have barely gotten sun exposure who do have skin cancer."
Environmental risk factors such as sun exposure get a lot of attention, but genetics also plays a role. "One risk factor for skin cancer is family history," Grossman says. That's not to say people with no skin cancer in their family can rest easy, however. "While skin cancer often runs in families, it does not only occur in those who have it in their family."
More than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. These include basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. Because of this, Brazil and Australia have banned tanning beds and other countries have set age limits.
Sunscreen alone cannot prevent cancer. Although it can reduce damage from ultraviolet rays, a U.K. study found that it fails to offer complete protection. The study's authors recommend additional measures, such as limiting time in the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and wearing protective clothing or a wide-brimmed hat.
While it's true that darker skin has more melanin, which helps prevent sunburn, melanin doesn't prevent skin damage from UV rays, according to the American Cancer Society. UV exposure can raise your risk for skin cancer without causing sunburn. On the flip side, though, the risk of melanoma is higher for people with fair skin that freckles or burns easily, as well as blondes, redheads, and people with blue or green eyes.
Some people believe that if they were exposed to the sun throughout their youth, it's too late to protect themselves as adults. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Research has shown that people get less than a quarter of their cumulative sun exposure by the age of 18. Caring for your skin and taking measures to prevent skin cancer is part of a healthy lifestyle at any age.
Although most people probably associate sun protection with the beach — and living or vacationing in tropical or subtropical climates is a risk factor — spending time in the mountains also increases the likelihood of sun damage, according to the American Cancer Society. Why? UV radiation is more intense at higher altitudes.
The size of a mole isn't the only indicator. Often, the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, or feel of an existing mole, as well as its size. People with more than 50 moles are at higher risk for developing melanoma, according to the National Cancer Institute. Going to a dermatologist for regular checkups can help catch and prevent skin cancer.
Some skin cancers grow on areas such as the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the rectum, and the vagina. "BCC and SCC are more common in sun-exposed areas but can occur in other locations, as well," Grossman says. "And melanoma is notorious for occurring in sun-protected areas too." Basal cell carcinoma typically presents as uncontrolled growths or lesions that look like sores or red patches or even shiny bumps. Squamous cell carcinoma is similar but can also resemble common warts.
Oddly enough, eating a diet of antioxidant-rich whole foods may reduce your chance of developing skin cancer. In numerous studies, dietary antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and carotenoids show "significant promise in skin cancer prevention."
It might seem that cancer disproportionately affects older skin. Although the average age of patients diagnosed with melanoma is 63, according to the American Cancer Society, it's one of the most common types of cancer among people under 30, especially women. The reality is that skin cancer can afflict people of all ages.
Cloudy days can be misleading. You may think the clouds shield you from the sun's rays, but in reality, up to 40 percent of UV rays can penetrate the clouds on a completely overcast day, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
This is a huge fallacy. As most skin cancer occurs on the face and neck and lips, protecting "your winter face" is very important. Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher if you're going to hit the slopes and reapply every two hours.
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