Dispelling Common Sun Damage Misconceptions

Northwestern Medicine
Cancer Care/Oncology August 27, 2013
Murad Alam, MDMidwesterners are especially vulnerable when it comes to suffering sun damage and skin cancer, according to Murad Alam, MD, a Northwestern Medicine dermatologist and professor of dermatology, otolaryngology and surgery at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.  

“We go all winter without getting any sun and then come spring we get the full force of the sun without having any kind of base and typically during one day or on vacation,” said Alam, who is also a professor of dermatology, otolaryngology and surgery at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “That is not a healthy way to get sun.”

Alam dispels common misconceptions when it comes to the sun:

1. A sun visor is the best way to protect your head. False. Sun visors and baseball caps only protect the top of your head and front of your face. “The best option is a wide-brimmed hat,” Alam said. “Sun protection is about accepting what’s good for you and not being self conscious about how it looks.”

2. Avoid harsh sunburns and you’ll reduce your risk of skin cancer. False. The sun’s rays are in constant contact with your skin when you’re outside – even if it’s just a few minutes walking from your car to the grocery store. Those minutes add up and can cause cumulative damage, so wear sunscreen all the time.

3. The sunscreen/sunblock with the highest SPF is the best choice. False. There are two types of ultraviolet lights that can be harmful - UVA and UVB. A broad-spectrum or full-spectrum sunscreen is designed to protect you from both. “People assume sunscreens today are better than they are,” Alam said. “You can’t put on sunscreen in the morning and be fine the rest of the day. You must reapply, especially if you go in the water. Also, check the expiration date. If you bought the sunscreen five years ago, it might be time to buy another bottle.”

4. You need to spend time outside to get Vitamin D. False. “Most people get enough Vitamin D,” Alam said. “Those with mild deficiencies can make it up with oral supplements which are much safer than sitting in the sun.”

5. The most common part of the body where people forget to apply sunscreen is the tops of the ears. False. Most people, especially men, forget to apply sunscreen to their scalp. “This is a problem for men with thinning hair,” Alam said. “It’s especially important to avoid this type of cancer as it’s more likely to spread and cause problems.”
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