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Skin Cancer Myths and Facts

Skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the US, but the vast majority of cases are preventable with smart skin care. Dr. Landon Stigall is a fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon. In this article, he debunks common skin care myths and explains how holding these misconceptions can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.


MYTH: People with darker skin tones don’t get skin cancer.

FACT: People of all skin tones can get skin cancer.

While it is true that people with fair skin are more likely to develop skin cancer, cancer does not discriminate based on skin tone. Unfortunately, people with darker skin types are usually diagnosed at a later stage of cancer, so their prognosis is often worse.

It’s unclear whether this misconception is part of why people with darker skin are diagnosed at late stages. However, it’s important for people to know that anyone can develop skin cancer.


MYTH: You need 15 minutes of sunlight daily for vitamin D, even though it can damage your skin.

FACT: Sun exposure isn’t the best way to get your vitamin D.

Scientists have studied people in equatorial countries where the dose of UV rays is higher per minute in the sun than in the northern and southern regions. They found that people in those regions can still be vitamin D deficient. What this tells us is that not everyone can synthesize sufficient vitamin D through sun exposure.

Vitamin D naturally occurs in fish, cheese, eggs, and greens like spinach and kale. Many of the foods you find at the grocery are also fortified with vitamin D such as milk, orange juice, and cereal. Getting vitamin D through foods and supplements is much more effective than getting it from sun exposure.

BONUS: You avoid unnecessary sun exposure that can damage your skin.


MYTH: If a mole is flat, it is not cancerous.

FACT: Melanomas can be flat or raised.

The most common form of melanoma, superficial spreading melanoma, is usually flat. Nearly 70% of all melanoma cases are of this variety. If this type of melanoma does present raised, it is only subtly so. The patient may not even perceive the slight elevation because it may be so minimal.

An untrained eye cannot usually tell the difference between benign and cancerous growths. It’s essential that you see your dermatologist for regular skin exams so that you can catch melanomas early.


MYTH: You don’t need to wear sunscreen on a cloudy day.

FACT: You need to wear sunscreen every day.

80% of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds, which is why people still get a sunburn after a cloudy day at the beach. No matter the weather, you should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects you against UVA and UVB rays every day.


MYTH: Sunscreen is enough to protect me from skin cancer.

FACT: Sunscreen does a lot to protect your skin, but there are several other prevention strategies.

Sunscreen is an excellent first step, and you should use it daily. If you’re going to be outdoors for an extended time, you should also wear protective clothing. Many companies sell UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) clothing that blocks nearly all of the sun’s damaging UV rays.

You should also wear a broad hat to protect your scalp, ears, and the back of your neck. UV blocking sunglasses are another smart choice because they help prevent melanoma in your eyes.

Other simple strategies are to avoid sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest. Seek shade if you’re outdoors during those hours or make your own with an umbrella.


MYTH: You can’t get sun damage indoors or in the car.

FACT: UV rays pass through windows.

Unless windows have a special treatment, they do not block the full spectrum of UV rays. Most car and building windows are not treated to filter all UV rays.

Many people can attribute leathery, pigmented, or wrinkled skin to the UV rays that passed through their car and office building windows. For example, people who drive for a living often have more aging on the left side of their faces because of the sunlight that passes through their vehicle windows. This is called photoaging, which is premature skin aging caused by sun exposure and artificial sources of UV, such as tanning beds.

Even if you work indoors or in a vehicle, you should still wear sunscreen on your face and neck every day.


MYTH: If you got a tan but not a sunburn, then you didn’t damage your skin.

MYTH: A tan is your skin’s reaction to sun damage.

The notion that a “base tan” is healthy for your skin is entirely untrue.

Tan skin is your body’s natural response to sun damage at the cellular level. Your skin produces melanin to protect itself against further damage, and the increase of melanin is what makes your skin appear darker.

Melanin is your body’s built-in SPF. However, most people only develop an SPF of about 3 when they have a tan. We recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher to reduce your risk of skin cancer. Your skin’s natural SPF is not strong enough to prevent the cellular damage that leads to skin cancer.


MYTH: Sun exposure is the only known cause of skin cancer.

FACT: UV exposure is the number one risk factor for skin cancer.

UV exposure from the sun or other sources such as tanning beds is the number one risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, the targeted rays in a tanning bed can be more severe than sunlight.

People who use tanning beds have an increased risk for basal and squamous cell carcinomas. People who tan before age 35 have a 75% greater risk of developing melanoma than those who do not. If you’ve ever used a tanning bed, you should see a dermatologist for regular skin checks.

It is possible to have spontaneous skin cancers unrelated to UV exposure, but those incidences are infrequent. Your best bet for preventing skin cancer is to avoid UV exposure when possible, and to use several methods for UV protection when exposure is anticipated.


Skin Cancer is Preventable

With proper skin care and an understanding of your personal risk factors, you can do a lot to reduce your chances of developing skin cancer. If you think that you may be at an increased risk for skin cancer, begin building your relationship with the skin health experts at The Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center of Wilmington today. Early detection of cancer dramatically improves your prognosis.

If you have questions about skin cancer prevention or you’re ready to schedule an appointment, reach out today.


Contact the Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center of Wilmington for all of your Mohs surgery, cosmetic, and general dermatology needs. Since 2001, Skin Surgery Center’s fellowship-trained Mohs surgeons and board-certified dermatologists have provided patients with exceptional treatment outcomes. Our professional staff is ready to provide you with the thoughtful, competent care that you deserve in our state-of-the-art facilities. Book your appointment today.

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