Skin Cancer and Sun Safety Myths (Disproved!)

The following article was written by Make Big Change’s fantastic Summer Intern, Sara Bryn:

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Today is a special day: it marks a full two weeks that I’ve been an intern for MBC!

So far, my job has consisted of doing surprisingly useful things; making phone calls, setting up presentation slides, putting stickers on sunscreen dispensers, researching sun protection apps, etc. (Although, so far, no drink runs; I’ve been woefully under-caffeinated.)

With the exception of “stickering” dispensers, almost everything I’ve done has required me to do some form of research, and, wow, I’ve stumbled across some concerning misconceptions on the internet. So, I’ve decided to properly inform the internet about skin cancer stuff! You can all thank me later.

“Skin cancer isn’t going to kill anyone.”

Wrong! So, so wrong. Over 76,000 people are estimated to be diagnosed with skin cancer in 2016 alone, while over 10,000 people are predicted to die from it.

“Okay, but having a tan lowers my risk of skin cancer, right?”

No, actually, having a tan increases your risk.

“But if I wear sunscreen, I won’t be able to absorb any vitamin D!”

See, everyone seems to think that you need several hours of sun exposure to get your weekly dose of vitamin D. In reality, you can get all the vitamin D you’ll need by rolling up your shirtsleeves and going outside for 10 minutes 2-3 times every week (but don’t try to get all of your vitamin D at once, or you could end up with a sunburn). That’s right: the human body can absorb more than enough vitamin D through the amount of skin on your forearms in a total of 30 minutes spread out over 7 days. Depending on where you work, that could very well be taken care of with the walk to and from your car each day.

“But what about the chemicals in sunscreen? Aren’t they also carcinogenic?”

No, otherwise they likely wouldn’t be on the market. While there are certainly a few studies that cite a noticeably increased cancer rate in sunscreen users, the general consensus is that most participants in those studies didn’t reapply. Therefore, people who thought that they were safe because they put on sunscreen, say, four hours ago, were actually not safe at all, because sunscreen isn’t a one-and-done kind of deal; it HAS to be reapplied. Now, the best sunscreens use a combination of a chemical block and a physical block to keep UV rays from burning you. Chemical blocks are the things on the ingredient list that you couldn’t pronounce to save your life, while physical blocks are things like zinc and titanium oxide. So, although people freak out because anything unpronounceable is “unsafe,” keep in mind that, A) your dermatologist wouldn’t be telling you to put something bad on your skin, and, B) that unpronounceable thing could very well be saving your life down the road.

“You know what, one sunburn doesn’t even matter. My skin will recover.”

Except for the fact, that, y’know, it won’t, a point best illustrated by this video. Your skin starts accumulating damage from the moment you got your first sunburn, it hasn’t stopped since, and unless you plan on somehow never going outside again, it never will. It’s worth remembering that if you’ve had more than five severe sunburns, your chances of being diagnosed with melanoma have already gone up by nine.

“Fine, sunburns = bad. I’ll just get my healthy glow from a tanning salon, then.”

No, no, no, no. Please don’t. You see, tans also cause skin damage. In fact, think of every minute you spend in a tanning bed as a minute spent in the desert without sunscreen: the UV exposure levels are just about equal, and the end result will likely be just as painful. If you absolutely must have some appearance of a tan, try going for some kind of tinted moisturizer or self-tanner. Contrary to popular belief, most of them aren’t bad for you and a few (at least Jergen’s and Neutrogena) won’t give you a skin tone on par with that of an Oompa Loompa.

“Alright, fine, I get it. On another note, I have this one mole that just popped up. I’m not too worried about it, though, because it’s the only one I have, so it’s not like it could be a skin cancer, right?”

There’s a saying around here that goes something like, “See spot. See spot change. See dermatologist.” Just because it’s your only mole, doesn’t mean it’s benign. Always get new moles checked out!

So, in short, wear sunscreen (yes, even on cloudy days, and no, it won’t kill you), keep an eye on your skin, avoid tanning booths like the plague, and, most importantly of all, remember that SPF is your BFF.