Debunking skin cancer myths: how to truly protect yourself

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By DR. MARGARET D. KOTTKE, Dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente of Georgia

It wasn’t long ago when people thought a suntan was healthy and a base tan was the way to start your fun in the sun. Today, we know that’s not the case.

Dr. Margaret D. Kottke

Doctors now know a tan is your skin’s response to injury by the sun. And although a tan may not be as severe an injury as a sunburn, any change in color means the skin has been harmed. Suntans and sunburns both increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 3,000 new skin cancer diagnoses in Georgia and 100,000 nationwide. Although this disease is preventable, here are three myths that need to be addressed so people can identify their level of risk and take appropriate action to prevent the disease.

Myth: Sunscreen is the perfect sun protection
No parent worth their salt lets their child spend a day at the beach without adequate sunscreen. This obsession with sun protection is the reason the Sunscreen Manufacturing industry is expected to hit $502.2m in 2021, according to market research company IBISWorld. The problem with this fascination is the misconception that sunscreen protects you from skin cancer; it does not. While regular daily use of sunscreen does reduce your risk of skin cancer, the benefit is negated if you use it to spend more time in the sun without shade/clothing protecting you. Sunscreen provides a false sense of security from sun damage causing us to stay outside longer than we would without it. To truly protect yourself from skin cancer, you must cover up! Swim shirts and a wide brim hat do more to protect you than any amount of SPF on the market.

Myth: Darker skin won’t get cancer
We’ve all heard the myth that fairer skin burns easier. Although this may be true, the pigment levels in our skin only reflect our ability to burn, not how likely we are to develop skin cancer. While people who burn more easily are generally more likely to get skin cancer, the correlation is not perfect, and burns are not our best indicator of who is at risk. Bottom line, all skin is at risk of developing cancer.

Myth: Tanning beds are safer
To the dismay of teenage girls everywhere, tanning beds are not safer than the sun. Although there is no age limit for tanning bed use in Georgia, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends sun beds be banned for use by those 18 years and under. The threat of damage is so extreme that the Skin Cancer Foundation says the risk of certain skin cancers increases 75% with people who have ever tanned indoors. The most significant risk for skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight, sunlamps and tanning beds.

The rates of new skin cancer may finally be trending in the right direction. A study by Kaiser Permanente researchers in Northern California shows a slight decrease in the risk of developing a skin cancer. Today the risk is two-thirds what it was 10 years ago in people with known sun damage.

Education regarding healthy skin care and regular dermatology appointments can significantly reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. Doctors agree it is difficult to be your own dermatologist, so being diligent in monitoring for changes in your skin and contacting your dermatologist quickly will provide the best chance at preventing skin cancer.

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