Summer is finally here, which means it’s time for barbecues, beach visits, trips to the pool and lathering on the sunscreen.
But while many people think they’re protecting themselves from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays, skin cancer rates are on the rise with over 2 million Americans diagnosed with the disease each year.
So where’s the disconnect?
Two Staten Island experts, Dr. Patricia McCormack and Dr. Michael Kurzman, are debunking common myths about skin cancer and tanning before you get fried by the summer sun.
Myth 1: Applying just sunscreen completely protects you from UV rays.
While sunscreen application is a great first step to ward off sunburn, it’s not enough to prevent significant skin damage or premature aging, said Dr. McCormack, a spokeswoman for The Skin Cancer Foundation and Graniteville-based dermatologist.
“Sunscreen is a very important part of your sun protection, but it’s not complete protection — especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest,” she said. “It would help to wear sun-protective clothing like hats to prevent scalp burns, and especially sunglasses to prevent cataracts.”
Myth 2: One sunscreen application is enough for hours of exposure.
Despite beliefs to the contrary, sunscreen wears off — and fairly quickly. “In spite of what a label says, realistically sunscreen should be applied every hour-and-a-half, and 30 minutes before exposing yourself,” said Dr. Kurzman, co-director of Dermatology at Staten Island University Hospital.
As for the type of sunscreen to purchase, Dr. McCormack recommends broad-spectrum UVA and UVB versions with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Myth 3: Waterproof sunscreen is really waterproof.
“Some sunscreens are water-resistant, but nothing is really waterproof,” Dr. McCormack said. She pointed to changes in sunscreen regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that will go into effect this December.
The new rules will retire the terms “sunblock,” “sweatproof” and “waterproof” and allow a sunscreen to be labeled “broad-spectrum” only if it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Additionally, sunscreen makers may still use the term “water-resistant” on labels, but must specify how often to reapply, usually between 40 and 80 minutes.
Myth 4: People with darker skin tones aren’t at risk for skin cancer.
“It may take more exposure, but many people with olive skin have multiple skin cancers throughout their lives,” Dr. Kurzman said. “You shouldn’t believe that if you tan easily, you are protected.”
Dr. McCormack noted that darker people often don’t seek help early enough and think they aren’t at risk. As a result, they are diagnosed at later stages than fairer patients. The solution: Tan people should reapply sunscreen as often as those with fair skin, and routinely check their bodies for new or abnormal growths.
Myth 5: You only need to apply sunscreen at the beach.
Sunscreen isn’t solely for ocean visits, or even the summer, Dr. Kurzman said. “The sun doesn’t care if you’re walking in the street or lying at the beach. Sunscreen should be a part of your daily routine,” he commented.
And while UVB rays are strongest in the summer months, UVA levels are consistent year-round and require continuous protection. If you know you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors — no matter the season — apply sunscreen and try to limit direct sun exposure to the skin.
Myth 6: It’s better to leave a baby unprotected than to apply sunscreen.
This has been a hot topic for debate among doctors. But, the experts said, skin damage at any age is cumulative and blistering burns can cause premature aging and skin cancer years later. Dr. McCormack believes sunscreen is safe for children 6 months and older; newborns should be kept out of the sun entirely. If exposure can’t be avoided, use protective clothing and seek shade.
Myth 7: Excessive exposure to the sun is good because it provides vitamin D.
It’s easy enough to get vitamin D in a pill form, Dr. Kurzman said, suggesting people take 1,000 international units each day.
“For the damage the sun will do to your skin to give you adequate levels, it’s just not worth the exposure,” he noted. “In fact, people who are very careful with sunscreen are vitamin D deficient, so they should get their blood tested routinely and take the proper supplements.”
Myth 8: All skin cancers look the same.
Skin cancers are not typical in appearance and irregular borders and pigments are not always warning signs, Dr. McCormack said. The three most common types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma — can have pink, red or crusted cells.
Dr. McCormack recommends regular self-examinations for new or altered growths, noting that most skin cancers are treatable if caught early. The deadliest form, melanoma, requires early detection to prevent spreading.
For more information, visit skincancer.org.
Keely Mohin is a reporter for the Advance. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.