“These findings surprised us and demonstrate that misperceptions about skin cancer and sun exposure are still prevalent,” says board-certified dermatologist Kenneth J. Tomecki, MD, FAAD, president of the American Academy of Dermatology in a press release. “As dermatologists who see firsthand the impact that skin cancer, including melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—has on our patients and their families, it’s concerning to see that so many individuals still do not understand how to protect themselves from ultraviolet exposure.”
So without sounding like a broken record (Put on sunscreen! Seriously, just do it!), we’d love to help set four of the largest misconceptions straight. Keep reading to learn the basic facts about sun exposure that many get wrong and what you should know.
1. 53 percent of adults are unaware that shade can protect them from the sun’s ultraviolet rays
Going in the shade is more than just comfortable, explains Laurel Geraghty, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Oregon. She says that in addition to wearing sunscreen, you should seek shade when you can, keeping in mind that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“A lot of us just don’t think about shade as kind of being an option. We’ll put on our sunscreen and we’ll sit out there in the hot sun all day at the beach. Even if we’re really diligent with sunscreen, there is still UV light that’s filtering through to our skin,” says Dr. Geraghty. “If we sit in the shade we’re taking out a lot of the guesswork. We can still wear sunscreen and protect ourselves, but we can cool off and we can just reduce the amount of ultraviolet light that’s reaching our skin’s surface.”
Additionally, wearing sun-protective clothing also provides protection. Wearing pants, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and/or a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt can make a huge difference.
2. 47 percent either incorrectly believe or are unsure that having a base tan will prevent sunburns
A base tan is the idea that getting a tan from indoor tanning prior to sun exposure can help prevent getting sunburn. Research conducted in 2005 found that a base tan is equivalent to SPF 3 or 4. However, dermatologists consistently recommend that you use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. And getting into the next point, even if you don’t burn, any tanning is bad for your skin can lead to skin cancer.
“I always compare getting a base tan to smoking,” says Dr. Geraghty. “Every time you have a cigarette it’s gonna damage your lungs and damage your body. [A base tan is] sort of like saying ‘Hey, I’m gonna smoke a bunch of cigarettes this week so that next week I’m not going to cough when I smoke more cigarettes.’ It’s just not a good strategy because getting that base tan is damaging our skin so that then we’ll go damage our skin more.”
3. 35 percent either incorrectly believe or are unsure that as long as you don’t burn, tanning is safe
“Tan skin is damaged skin,” says Dr. Geraghty. “It’s showing signs of sun damage from the exposure that you’ve gotten or damage from ultraviolet light, whether that comes from indoor tanning or the sun.” That damage impacts the DNA of our skin cells, raises our risk of skin cancers and pre-cancer, and contributes to signs of aging like wrinkles, fine lines, sunspots, and sagging skin, she adds.
4. 31 percent are unaware that tanning causes skin cancer
“Depending on which study you read anywhere between 80 to 90 percent of all skin cancers are the direct result of ultraviolet light exposure, whether that comes from the sun, or whether it comes from an indoor tanning bed or tanning booth,” says Dr. Geraghty. “That means we could prevent 80 to 90 percent of all skin cancers just by taking steps to protect our skin from too much sunshine. Avoiding burns and tans; wearing sunscreen, hats, and all those good things; seeking out the shade; but also avoiding tanning beds.”
Dr. Geraghty says tanning beds are especially dangerous because they reach areas of the body that aren’t used to sun exposure. “I will frequently diagnose a cancer called a basal cell skin cancer, or melanoma, on the breast, or under the arm, or on the groin, or on the buttock—places where the sun doesn’t even shine. And a lot of those are from tanning bed exposures because we’ve got powerful light going on areas of the skin that wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to much ultraviolet at all.”
Learn about the best sunscreen to use according to a dermatologist:
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