It’s finally time to peel off those layers and enjoy the long-awaited warm weather – but first you need to arm yourself with the right information, courtesy of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), to keep your skin safe as temperatures soar.
Although summer can inspire a carefree attitude, looking out for your skin is a serious issue. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), skin cancer is the most common cancer in the country, which is estimated to affect one in five Americans and results in 9,500 diagnoses of the disease every day. The AAD also reports that skin cancer rates have increased dramatically in recent years and continue to rise.
The good news is that everyone can lower their risk by reducing their exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which could lead to something far worse than the embarrassing discomfort of peeling, red skin.
That’s why, in observance of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, Megan Rogge, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, is setting the record straight on common misconceptions about staying safe in the sun.
Rogge, who sees patients at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School, sheds light on 10 skin myths and shares tips on how to protect your skin from top to toe:
- “Skin cancer won’t kill me.”
Every day nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma, a deadly type of skin cancer, according to the AAD. Research indicates that regular sunscreen use reduces melanoma risk.
“The majority of melanoma cases are caused by UV exposure. It can not only spread to the lungs and brain, but it can invade the entire body. Incidence is growing and this is partly due to improved detection, but also an increase in tanning bed use and sun exposure,” Rogge said. “Even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double someone’s chance of developing melanoma. People who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75%. So even if you have been careful in recent years and wear sunscreen now, unfortunately this doesn’t mean you’re safe from skin cancer.”
- “My skin tans easily, so I don’t need protection.”
Although fair skin tends to burn more easily, everyone needs to take precautions.
“I tell patients there’s no such thing as a healthy tan. Lighter skin tones are more susceptible to sun damage, but all skin types, including African American, can be affected and will benefit from wearing sun protection,” Rogge said. “Besides reducing the risk of skin cancer, this will also help guard against sun spots, wrinkles, and loss of elasticity.”
- “I use a high-factor sunscreen, so I’m protected all day long.”
A high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) doesn’t mean you’re free to bask in the sun for longer.
“There are two basic types of UV rays – UVA and UVB. UVA penetrates more deeply into the skin and plays a greater role in premature skin aging. UVB is responsible for producing sunburn and plays the greatest role in causing skin cancers. The SPF of a sunscreen indicates the percentage of UVB rays blocked,” Rogge said. “An SPF of 15 only blocks 9%, whereas an SPF of 30 blocks 97%. That’s why I always recommend using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. No matter how high the SPF, it only lasts two hours so regular reapplication is essential. And if you may be sweating or plan on swimming, you should get a sunscreen labeled ‘very water resistant,’ which should provide protection for up to 80 minutes.”
- “I’ll be fine if I cover up.”
Throwing on a T-shirt is not a surefire way to beat sunburn.
“A typical white cotton T-shirt has an SPF equivalent of 4, so contrary to popular belief, it’s not going to prevent much sun damage at all. If you’re relying on fabric for sun protection, you can now buy clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF),” Rogge said. “UPF 50 is best, and it’s a good option for children who don’t like having lotion applied all over or adults who find this more convenient. Don’t forget that only the parts covered are protected, so wearing some sunscreen will still be necessary. Ears and the back of the neck are areas often missed.”
- “I heard sunscreen causes cancer.”
Heeding hearsay can be dangerous, especially when it comes to health.
“There are no studies linking sunscreen to the development of cancer. This speculation grew from evidence showing certain ingredients found in some chemical sunscreens may mimic hormones if used in very high amounts,” Rogge said. “It’s important to emphasize the research involved rats consuming large amounts of these substances, so its findings do not necessarily apply to humans.”
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreens to ensure they meet safety and effectiveness standards. There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. A chemical sunscreen penetrates the skin and absorbs the sun’s rays, whereas a physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin and deflects away the harmful rays.
“Physical blockers might be the best choice for children or anyone with sensitive skin. They’re also recommended for blemish-prone skin types,” Rogge said.
- “I need to be out in the sun for vitamin D.”
Ensuring your body has sufficient vitamin D is important for children and adults. Although exposure to sunlight is a significant source, there are alternatives.
“A small number of foods contain vitamin D and others, such as milk and breakfast cereal, are fortified with it. Supplements are also readily available,” Rogge said. “However, for some it may be hard to obtain the recommended daily amount solely through diet and supplements. Ten minutes of unprotected sun exposure to the face and upper body daily during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. may be of benefit. However, if your skin always burns with sun exposure or you have a strong personal or family history of skin cancer, I advise against this.”
- “I only need to wear sunscreen if it’s hot and sunny.”
Protecting skin against UV damage is a year-round commitment come rain or shine.
“Clouds filter out sunlight, but not the harmful UV rays which cause skin cancer and premature aging. UV rays are also independent of temperature, so you can get just as much sun damage on a cold, sunny day as a hot summer one,” Rogge said. “That’s why it’s important to incorporate a sunscreen into your daily skincare routine. I recommend placing it next to your toothbrush so you don’t forget before heading out.”
- “My makeup contains sunscreen, so I’m good.”
Foundation with a high SPF may sound like the perfect solution, but there are potential pitfalls.
“Even though your makeup may contain sunscreen, there are various reasons why it could be dangerous to rely on this alone,” Rogge said. “Firstly, it’s not necessarily applied all over the face and neck. Powder-based products are likely to be least effective because there is less coverage of the skin, and powder does not adhere to the skin surface as well as a cream or lotion. This means more frequent and careful application is required, which may not be ideal.”
- “My skin looks healthier with a tan.”
A sun-kissed glow might sound desirable, but its appeal can be deceiving and short-lived.
“A golden tan might make you feel good in the moment, but it’s certainly not healthy. In fact, it’s a sign your skin is trying to defend itself from harmful UV radiation – when skin is exposed to this, more melanin is produced, causing the skin to darken,” Rogge said. “Any tanning method that involves UV radiation exposure to the skin causes damage, which will increase the risk of skin cancer and accelerate aging. If you want to achieve a bronzed look, reach for the sunless tanner or bronzer instead.”
- “I would know if something was seriously wrong with my skin.”
Small changes to skin signaling a major problem can easily go unnoticed, so it’s important to see an expert.
“Most skin cancer diagnoses happen because the patient has come to see me about a different issue. The most common skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma – appears as a pink bump, usually on skin commonly exposed to sun, which grows over time,” Rogge said. “Fortunately, if detected early and treated properly, it’s highly curable. This is why it’s vital to get your yearly skin check to pick up on any abnormalities and address them.”
The Department of Dermatology at McGovern Medical School uses the latest advances in research and technology to provide personalized care and advice for various conditions, including types of skin cancer.
To schedule an appointment with a dermatologist at UT Physicians call 1-888-488-3627.
Media inquiries: 713-500-3030