Busting skin cancer myths for outdoor athletes

skin cancer
Professional skier Caroline Gleich spends a lot of time in the sun and knows how to protect herself from skin cancer thanks to her dermatologist mom. Photo courtesy Caroline Gleich

Just because winter is right around the corner, this doesn’t mean you can ignore the dangers of sun exposure. Chances are, no matter what you’re doing outside, your face and neck will likely still be exposed to UV radiation, and most skin cancers tend to occur on those parts of the body. Plus, the sun is actually closer to the Earth during winter, not farther away, with the tilt of the Earth’s axis being what causes the seasons and not the Earth’s distance from the sun.

But it’s nothing a little SPF can’t take care of, right? We’d like to think that’s true, but the overall incidence of skin cancer, and its most dangerous form, melanoma, is on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, one American dies of melanoma every hour.

So we dug up the truth—with the help of mother-daughter team Dr. Kristin Leiferman and Caroline Gleich (a dermatologist and professional outdoor athlete, respectively)—about skin cancer myths to arm you with the knowledge you need to keep yourself safe.

Myth: Only fair-skinned people get melanoma.
Fact: Caucasians—especially those with light skin, blonde or red hair, and blue or green eyes—are more likely to develop melanoma, but people of color are more likely to die from it. A fast-spreading form of skin cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma is more common among darker-skinned people and can be tough to spot since it appears as a growth in the mucous membranes, under the nails, and on the palms or the soles of the feet. But anyone with skin—so, yes, everyone—is at risk, especially if you’ve had a sunburn at some point in your life (and who hasn’t?).

If you have more than 50 moles—especially ones that are large, unusually shaped, or multi-colored—and you don’t get them checked on a yearly basis, you should get them checked as soon as possible. If someone in your family has had melanoma, you could also be at a higher risk. “Know your skin and moles,” says Gleich of the best advice her mother has given her about skin cancer prevention. “If you notice anything that looks funny, acts funny, or feels funny on your skin, go see a dermatologist ASAP.”

Myth: Tanning beds are bad—duh—but they’re better than tanning outdoors since they emit a controlled dose of UV radiation.

Fact: A controlled dose is still a high dose: Frequent tanners baking under sunlamps can get as much as 12 times the annual ultraviolet UVA dose they get from sun exposure. The bottom line? Stay away from the fake bake and opt for sunless tanning lotions if you don’t want to paddle out pale. And never, ever risk a roast in the sun. “Once, when I was a teenager, I wanted to get tan, so I didn’t wear sunscreen during a long day surfing on the beach in Oregon,” says Gleich. “[My face] blistered and peeled, but the healing process made me never want to get a bad burn again.”

Myth: A gradual base tan can be safe and will fend off a burn.
Fact: The bottom line is this: There is no such thing as a safe or protective tan. Skin changes color in an attempt to repair sun damage and prevent further injury, but it’s an imperfect repair; that change is a response to UV damage to the skin’s actual DNA and can cause gene defects that can lead to skin cancer. So that lovely golden color you see after 10 minutes in the sun? It’s just damage, plain and simple. “Consider using sunless tanners, because they give you the bronze color,” says Leiferman, who practices at the University of Utah. “Think seriously about how unhealthy it is for your skin to be tan.”

Myth: You don’t need sunscreen if you’re outside on a cloudy day.
Fact: Wrong! The general rule of thumb used to be that if you could see your shadow, you needed sunscreen. But now we know that up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays poke through clouds and fog. Play it safe and slather on a layer of sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or greater if you plan on being outdoors for more than 10 minutes—but keep experimenting with which sunscreens you use. Says Leiferman, “Make sure to find something with UVA coverage. The SPF number really only applies to the UVB rays, but the UVA is extremely important for generation of skin cancers. The FDA is working on mandates for UVA coverage, so watch for when those become available and get one with good UVA coverage.”

Don’t let your skin fry in the sun. Cover up with protective clothing and a sunscreen with UVA protection. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Myth: If you’re indoors, the sun can’t harm you.
Fact: That depends. If you’re in a cubicle farm, you’re probably safe as long as you have a short walk from the office to the car. But if you’re sitting by a window or commuting in your vehicle, UVA radiation can still penetrate the glass. Your best bet is to wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and long sleeves, but you could also install a special window film that blocks these rays.

Myth: Some ingredients in sunscreen actually cause cancer.
Fact: There was an old research study on rodents that caused a stir when it suggested that the UV filter oxybenzone—found in many sunscreens—could penetrate the skin and produce free radicals, pesky substances that could, in theory, actually contribute to the development of melanoma. More up-to-date research shows that just because that’s true in rodents doesn’t mean it’s so for humans; the FDA approved the ingredient and there is no evidence of serious side effects among humans. The Skin Cancer Foundation says that sunscreen is applied to the top layer of skin, which is made up of dead skin cells, and multiple studies have shown that the lotions and sprays don’t penetrate living skin.

The general consensus is that current sunscreens on the market pose no risk to your health, while data clearly shows that sunscreens can help prevent skin cancer. “The best natural sunscreen is keeping covered up with good protective fabric, big sunglasses, and a big hat,” says Leiferman. “Look for garments with a UPF fabric designation, or find fabrics that are opaque and don’t let much light through.” If you still want a more natural alternative, Leiferman suggests a mineral sunscreen with non-nano particles of zinc oxide and titanium oxide, like Elemental Herbs’ zinc sunscreen or Vanicream sunscreen for sensitive skin.

“I tend not to like the moisturizers with sunscreen because people put them on first thing in the morning thinking they will get coverage, and then go out in the sun two hours later when the sunscreens are no longer active,” says Leiferman. Your best bet? Cover up, stay in the shade, and make sure you get adequate coverage and don’t miss any spots with your sunscreen.

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