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Kristen Nichols HeitmanThis is a guest post by Kristen Nichols Heitman, MPH, an epidemiologist in the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch in the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in the National Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She received a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in epidemiology from Georgia State University.

May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month. An estimated one in five Americans will develop some kind of skin cancer over the course of their lifetimes. Sadly, one American dies of melanoma almost every hour. This is a scary statistic, but, with early detection and treatment, most skin cancers are completely curable. In fact, the five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads is almost 100 percent.

Among other well-known prevention techniques, skin cancer screenings are an important part of skin cancer prevention. Research has shown that most skin cancers are detected by patients rather than by doctors. Learning how to perform a skin cancer self-exam monthly and when to notify your doctor about a suspicious mole or spot can decrease your risks of having significant problems with skin cancer.

Skin checks with a dermatologist only take around 15 minutes and should be part of a regular annual health screening routine. Employers can encourage their employees to get screened by spreading awareness about the causes of skin cancer and sharing information about free skin screenings in the area. For example, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery has an online tool to search for free screenings in your area. Another great way employers can spread skin cancer awareness is by debunking popular myths about skin cancer. See below for five common myths about skin cancer.

Myth #1: You can’t get a sunburn on a cloudy day.

Truth: You can get a sunburn on windy, snowy, cloudy and cold days because the UV radiation from the sun is independent of temperature. So, no matter how cold it is, you can still burn. On cloudy days, the sun’s UV radiation can be even more intense due to reflection off the bottom of the clouds. Also, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate clouds and fog. To avoid burning, incorporate regular use of sunscreen into your daily routine.

Myth #2: If you tan, but don’t burn, you don’t need to wear sun protection.

Truth: If your skin turns brown, this is a sign of sun damage, even without redness and peeling. Your skin turns brown as a way of trying to protect itself because the UV rays are damaging living cells. A suntan offers limited sunburn protection of around SPF 3, but it doesn’t protect against further DNA damage. If you tan easily you are still at risk of skin cancer and need to use sun protection.

Myth #3: Really high SPFs, like SPF 100, don’t actually do anything more, it’s just a marketing ploy to make you think you’re getting more protection.

Truth: High SPFs are not a marketing ploy; they do offer more protection, although the additional coverage they provide is minimal once you get above an SPF 50. However, the increased protection can make a difference to those who have very fair skin or have a family history of skin cancer. Because most people don’t apply sunscreen correctly by not using enough, an SPF of over 50 can also help to make up for some human error. Keep in mind that you still need to reapply every two hours (or more frequently if swimming or sweating).

Myth #4: You won’t retain the benefits of vitamin D if you use a high SPF sunblock.

Truth: The harmful effects of sun exposure far outweigh any benefits of vitamin D. For Caucasians, the maximum amount of vitamin D intake is reached after just five to 10 minutes of midday sun exposure. After reaching the limit, further exposure will not increase the amount of vitamin D in the body. Additionally, it’s best to obtain vitamin D through diet and vitamin supplements.

Myth #5: If you don’t have moles, you’re not at risk of skin cancer.

Truth: It’s true that people with abundant moles are at higher risk of skin cancer, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is exempt. People need to watch for any changes in individual moles, or skin spots. If something has changed on your skin, get it checked out. Every adult should have an annual whole-body mole check to establish a baseline.

Educating employees about the importance of skin cancer checks, as well as other health screenings, leads to a healthier workforce, better morale, improved productivity and reduced healthcare costs.

The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors’ affiliated institutions.

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