Skin cancer is confusing. This mole can kill me?! It’s the wrong shape?! Is it bad I just got super sunburned? It’s weird and scary and oftentimes hard to detect. Since summer is coming up and we’ll likely be spending more time in the sun, we wanted to set the record straight, we spoke with Skin Cancer Foundation Spokesperson Matthew Mahlberg, MD, a dermatologist based in Loveland and Denver, CO and got some answers to our most commonly held MYTHS about skin cancer and whether these skin myths are totally true or total BS.
Myth #1: People who freckle are more susceptible to skin cancer.
This is true. Freckles are a sign of previous sun exposure, and they are an indication of sun damage. Freckles are more common in fair-skinned people, who have an increased risk of skin cancer.
Myth #2: People who burn easily are more susceptible to skin cancer.
Also, true. Fair-skinned people who tend to burn easily are very susceptible to skin damage and skin cancer. On average, a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns. Sunburns also increase the risk of other skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Myth #3: Really high SPFs, like SPF 100, don’t actually do anything more, it’s just a marketing ploy to make you think you’re getting more protection.
High SPFs are not a marketing ploy, they do offer more protection although the additional coverage they provide is minimal once you get above an SPF 50. However, the increased protection can make a difference to those who have very fair skin or have a family history of skin cancer. Because most people don’t apply sunscreen correctly (they generally don’t use enough), an SPF of over 50 can also help to make up for some human error. With this said, an SPF of 15 or higher is generally fine for every day incidental exposure, and you’ll want to use an SPF of 30 or higher when you’re spending time outside.
Regardless of if you are using SPF 15, 30, or 50+, keep in mind that you still need to reapply every two hours (or more frequently if swimming or sweating).
Myth #4: The SPF in my foundation is enough sun protection.
For every day exposure, makeup with sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) can provide adequate protection. However, your makeup should not be used as a substitute for sunscreen if you are going to be spending extended time outdoors. For these instances, look for a water-resistant broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Myth #5: I don’t need to wear sunscreen if I’m inside almost all day and only go out or leave the office after the sun has gone down. (Similarly, I don’t have to wear SPF when the sun isn’t out).
To build good habits and provide consistent protection, you should wear sunscreen every day, rain or shine. Up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate clouds and fog.
Furthermore, even if you’re spending just a short time outside (like commuting to and from work), it’s important to know that sun damage is cumulative. It adds up over time, leads to premature skin aging and increases your risk for skin cancer.
Myth #6: It’s almost impossible to get skin cancer on your eyeballs.
The eyes are definitely susceptible to sun damage, which is why most sunglasses (and even some contact lenses) offer UV protection. Skin cancer can occur in the eye itself in the form of ocular melanoma, although a much more common occurrence is the development of sun-related skin cancers on the eyelids. These cancers can be prevented by practicing sun safety and wearing sunglasses with UV protection.
Myth #7: I only need to get checked for skin cancer or weird moles IF I see a weird mole.
It is true that self-examination and surveillance for “weird moles” is an incredibly important way of skin cancer detection. I encourage and teach all my patients to routinely look themselves over and if they ever see a new or changing mole, I want them to come in to have it evaluated. In addition, a yearly full body skin examination by a board-certified dermatologist can help detect skin cancers earlier and in hard to see places on the body.
Myth #8: You can’t get skin cancer on a mole on a part of the body that doesn’t ever see the sun.
Although there is a strong link between sun exposure and skin cancer risk, skin cancer can develop anywhere on the body, even where the sun doesn’t shine.
Myth #9: Aerosol/spray sunscreen is not as effective as lotion sunblocks.
Sprays are effective if used properly. Make sure to apply it in a well-ventilated room, or outdoors. Keep in mind that the wind may carry some sunscreen away, so spraying while on the beach could be problematic. Make sure you spray the sunscreen liberally, and then rub it in, so that it goes on evenly and completely over the skin’s surface. When applying to the face, it’s best to spray the sunscreen on your hands and then rub it into your face.
Also be extra diligent about evenly spraying the sunscreen, even asking a friend or family member for help if that’s an option. With a lotion, you can easily see where you applied whereas most sprays come out clear, so it’s harder to tell what skin is protected, and what skin is not.
Myth #10: You won’t retain the benefits of vitamin D if you use a high SPF sunblock.
It’s best to obtain vitamin D through diet and vitamin supplements, the harmful effects of sun exposure far outweigh any vitamin D benefits. For Caucasians, the maximum amount of vitamin D intake is reached after just five to 10 minutes of midday sun exposure. After reaching the limit, further exposure will not increase the amount of vitamin D in the body.
Myth #11: Skin cancer can only manifest as a weird or discolored mole.
While melanoma skin cancer can appear like a “weird” or “discolored” mole, the other most common forms of skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma) can appear as an open sore, a pink scaly patch, a shiny bump, or a pimple that won’t heal. The key is to seek a dermatologist’s opinion as soon as you see anything on your body that looks new or suspicious.
Myth #12: Once you get a sunburn, that’s it, there’s nothing you can do to reverse the damage you just did.
When you have just gotten a sunburn, there is not much you can immediately do to reverse the damage just caused. However, it is important to get out of the sun to prevent more damage and hydrate to help the skin to heal.
For the sun damage that has accumulated over years, some techniques are helpful to mitigate and reverse some of the damage done by the sun. These techniques range from medical treatments of sun-damaged skin with topical prescription medications and light-based therapies such as photodynamic therapy to aesthetic treatments of photoaging using a variety of lasers, topical medications such as retinoids or hydroquinone, or other treatments.
Myth #13: Darker skinned individuals that rarely get burned have less a chance of getting skin cancer as a fair skinned person.
Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, regardless of skin color. Don’t assume you’re safe just because you don’t burn. People who tan easily are also at risk. Tans are the skin’s attempt to repair itself from UV damage, so if you have a tan, you have sustained skin cell damage. These imperfect repairs cause gene defects that can lead to skin cancer as well as skin aging.
Skin cancer is also deadlier in people with dark skin because it’s often detected at a later, more dangerous stage.