Myth: “80 percent of sun damage occurs before age 18, so the injury is already done”
The latest thinking shows that you get closer to just 25 percent of total sun exposure by age 18—that 80 percent figure is outdated and inaccurate. Further, experts say revamping your sun habits at any age is a smart move. “It’s the same as smoking cigarettes—no matter how much damage you’ve done, it’s always good to stop,” says Dr. Rigel. While it’s true that melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is more closely linked to childhood sunburns, “it’s cumulative sun exposure that’s associated with other skin cancers, not to mention wrinkles, thinning skin, dark spots, and ‘broken’ capillary veins on the skin,” says Jessica Wu, MD, Los Angeles dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at USC School of Medicine. Here are more sunscreen dos and don’ts you should know this summer.
Myth: “I have dark skin, so I don’t need to worry”
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“This is just profoundly, radically false,” says Ranella Hirsch, MD, a Boston dermatologist and past president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery. Many people with more pigment in their skin will have a lower skin cancer risk, says Rigel, but they’re not immune. One CDC paper found that up to 30 percent of darker-skinned ethnic groups reported at least one sunburn in the previous year. “Unfortunately, skin cancer is frequently diagnosed later in people of color—perhaps because of the misconception that they are not at risk—so it’s often progressed to a later stage and is more difficult to treat,” says Dr. Wu. Singer Bob Marley, for example, died of melanoma on his toe that was misdiagnosed as a soccer injury. Furthermore, skin color isn’t as simple as it sounds, because people are more heterogeneous than you think, explains Hirsch. So even if you have a dark complexion, you could have genes that make you more susceptible to skin cancer.
Myth: “As long as I protect my face, it’s OK”
“Skin cancer loves anywhere the sun touches,” says Dr. Hirsch. You can get it on your arms, legs, back, feet, and chest. So while it’s good to protect your face, skipping the rest of you leaves you vulnerable. Not just to skin cancer, but signs of aging as well. Hirsch says she can often tell how old someone is simply by looking at the back of her hands—it’s a dead giveaway for years of unprotected sun exposure. “Sun is the greatest threat to your skin’s health and youth,” Dr. Rotter agrees. These are the places you’re ignoring when you check for skin cancer.