Skin Cancer Myths, Busted: Part 1

Did you know 10,000 people in the U.S. will die from a preventable cancer this year alone?

That preventable cancer is skin cancer. And yes, we know you're tired of being told to wear sunscreen, put on a hat, and hang out in the shade, but these practices can be life-saving.

About 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, will account for more than 73,000 cases of skin cancer this year alone. Of those cases, 10,000 people will die [1]. Of those cases, 33,490 are women, and 4,220 of those women will die [2].

This summer, let's all take better care of our skin, starting with busting some common skin cancer myths.

Myth 1: Putting On Sunscreen Is Good Enough

Everyone thinks they know the basics of prevention (wear sunscreen, stay in the shade, put on a hat, etc.), but did you know you're supposed to reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of whether or not you were sweating it off or taking a dip in the pool? And yes, this is true for "sweat-proof" formulas, too, so reapply, reapply, reapply.

"Those are the biggest issues I see," said Brenda J. Berberian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland. "People don't reapply nearly often enough, and they don't use enough product to begin with."

The American Cancer Society recommends about a "palmful" on each area of unprotected skin. That's not one palmful, total -- that's one palmful for your face, one palmful for your right arm, one palmful for your left arm, and so on [3].

And while we're talking about sunscreen: you should know that the SPF number doesn't really matter. SPF, or sun protection factor, measures how well the sunscreen deflects UVB rays [4]. The number is essentially meaningless; when applied correctly, SPF 30 offers only slightly more protection than SPF 15, not twice the protection. Sunscreens with SPF 50 or higher offer only slightly more protection than SPF 30, but again, it all depends upon how well it's applied. When shopping for sunscreen, look for a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen that will protect against both UVA and UVB rays, rather than dwelling on the sunscreen's SPF number [4].

Myth 2: A Bad Sunburn Is The "Red Flag" For Skin Cancer

Be aware that not all areas susceptible to sun damage are easily visible to you. Dr. Berberian advises not only asking your dermatologist to be on the lookout for telling spots, but your dentist, optometrist, hairdresser, and even your gynecologist. And if you get a regular mani-pedi, be sure to take a look at your nail beds while they're bare -- skin cancers can develop underneath the fingernail, too.

"When you do these checks, you're looking for basically any change in your skin," says Dr. Berberian. This could include the size or color of a mole, growth, or spot, or a new growth; scaliness, roughness, oozing, bleeding, or simply a change in the way an area of skin looks; a sore that doesn't heal; the spread of pigmentation beyond its border, such as dark coloring that spreads past the edge of a mole or mark; or a change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain [3]. Any of these can be a symptom of skin cancer, so if you've noticed any of these changes in your skin, notify your healthcare provider right away.

Next week, we'll be back with Skin Cancer Myths, Busted: Part 2. In the meantime, you can learn more about women's health issues -- skin cancer and beyond -- at Stay tuned, and stay safe in the sun!