While awareness of skin cancer and the risks of UV exposure is increasing worldwide, there are still many widespread myths around skin care and sun exposure that won’t seem to go away. With conflicting information online, it can sometimes be difficult to tease out what’s true from what’s false — that’s why we are addressing three of the most common skin care myths below.
Myth: “A base tan will protect you from skin damage.”
To address this myth, we first need to look at why we tan. A tan is our body’s natural response to UV exposure. As UV rays penetrate the skin, our skin produces melanin in an effort to protect against the UV radiation.
The melanin absorbs the rays and transforms them into heat, but its protective abilities are limited, with estimates showing that our natural melanin protection only blocks 50-75% of UVB rays at best. With the basics of tanning understood, the concept of a ‘base tan’ starts to unravel. While on first thought it may sound like a good idea to ‘prep’ your skin before a beach holiday or a long day out in the sun, the fact is that any tan is essentially our skin trying to cope with the sun’s radiation and prevent damage from occurring. And, as discussed above, the amount of protection our skin’s natural defenses can provide is severely limited.
The bottom line is that once the skin starts to tan, it’s usually a good sign that damage has already occurred. Rather than trying to get a base tan, the best way to protect yourself on a beach holiday or during a period of high sun exposure is to apply broad spectrum sunscreen regularly, wear sun protective clothing and seek shade whenever possible.
Myth: “Sun exposure is healthy because our bodies need vitamin D.”
Another common misconception is that repeated sun exposure and tanning is okay – healthy even – because our bodies need vitamin D and we can only get vitamin D from the sun. There is no doubt that vitamin D is essential for our health as it plays a role in proper immune function, the absorption of calcium and phosphorus and more. And while the sun is often touted as the best source of vitamin D, it’s important to remember that a little sun exposure goes a long way.
Most research points to as little as five to ten minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week on the arms, legs, hands and/or face to meet all of the body’s vitamin D needs. Further, prolonged sun exposure will not increase the body’s stores of vitamin D. Rather, levels will remain steady, or possibly even break down, but the risk of developing skin cancer will greatly increase. It’s also important to note that wearing sunscreen has never been shown to lead to vitamin D deficiency.
Even when wearing sunscreen, some UVB rays will inevitably penetrate the skin and stimulate vitamin D production, meaning that you never need to leave your skin unprotected. The sun is also not the only source of vitamin D. People can supplement with tablets or acquire it from certain foods such as fatty fish, some cereals and eggs; however, it is worth noting that the body will not readily store vitamin D without fat, so taking vitamin D supplements with something fatty such as olive oil can help in absorption.
Myth: “Sunscreen can cause skin cancer.”
There are a lot of articles out there raising concerns about the safety of sunscreen, stating that sunscreen could actually be causing skin cancer rather than preventing it. The ingredients in question are oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and nanoparticles, which some claim can enter the bloodstream and affect hormone levels or generate free-radicals. Despite the worrying claims, many medical professionals and institutions agree that the research proves these claims to be unfounded and often a product of misinterpreted study results.
A comprehensive review of all studies of melanoma and sunscreen use completed from 1966 to 2003 conducted by the Annals of Internal Medicine found no evidence that sunscreen increases melanoma risk. While on the other hand, there have been many studies over the years that demonstrate the efficacy of using sunscreen regularly to prevent skin cancer. A 2010 study of 1,621 Australians, found that regular sunscreen users reduced their incidence of melanoma by 50-73 percent.
For those who are still concerned or who have sensitive skin, non-chemical sunscreens (also called physical sunscreens) that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide may be a better option as they lay on top of the skin and reflect the sun’s rays instead of being absorbed into the skin.