OK, here’s what all races and ages need to know about skin cancer

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May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month — and according to the CDC, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in America. However, recent studies have found that only 34 percent of Americans worry about getting it.

I’ll admit: As an African-American woman in her 20s, I don’t feel like a prime candidate for skin cancer. Growing up, sunscreen was reserved for the summertime during weekend trips to the beach, or daily interactions with the pool at summer camp. The adage “Black don’t crack” reigned supreme, and many of us were taught as children that the rich pigments of melanin in our skin would prevent us from getting certain types of cancer.

Well, more research has come out, and let’s just say that those generational pass-downs weren’t entirely accurate.

Advanced Dermatology recently surveyed 2,000 Americans and analyzed Google search data to learn which states are the most and least concerned about skin cancer. The numbers were alarming, to say the least.

40 percent of Americans say they rarely or never wear sunscreen and more than 70 percent only wear it in the summer. 

While I can’t say I was completely surprised by that general result, the fact that the study also disclosed that 53 percent of Americans have never been checked for skin cancer by a professional — despite 34 percent saying they’ve experienced sunburn in the last year — felt uncomfortable.

Honestly, how many times have you said that skin cancer was an old person thing, or a white person thing, or a thing only for people spending long periods of time in the sun? The reality is many of us have held inaccurate assumptions around skin cancer — but no matter your age, race or gender, we all are susceptible to cancer if we are not careful.

Below, we’re breaking down what skin cancer is and ways to prevent it.

Credit: Getty Images

What is skin cancer?

As the name suggests, skin cancer is … well, cancer of the skin. According to Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, president and co-founder of Modern Dermatology, skin cancer occurs from “out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the skin … triggered by DNA damage resulting in mutations that form malignant tumors.”

Skin cancer can also occur in places that are not frequently exposed to the sun, such as the mouth and the soles of the feet, Robinson explained to In The Know.

Are there different types of skin cancer?

“There are several types of skin cancer,” Robinson said. “There’s basal cell carcinoma, which is the most common, as well as squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common, melanoma, which is the most deadly, and Merkel cell carcinoma.”

Can I get skin cancer even though I’m young?

The short answer to this: Yes.

“I diagnose skin cancer in patients of all ages nearly every week,” Robinson explained. “The majority are in their 60s; however, I catch it in patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s quite often.”

How do you get skin cancer?

According to Robinson, the three main causes of skin cancer are unprotected exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, the use of UV tanning beds and, of course, genetics.

“There are genetic predispositions that may make someone more vulnerable to skin cancer. For example, having a fair complexion and light eyes can make you more vulnerable,” she explained.

Credit: Getty Images

So does that mean darker complexions can’t get skin cancer?

For all of my deeper-hued people, we are still at risk for skin cancer.

“The kernel truth in this is that lighter-skinned people are diagnosed more frequently; however, Bob Marley died of melanoma!” Robinson said.

Simply having a darker skin tone does not make one immune, and Dr. Ted Lain, board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology, suggested that people “protect themselves the same way with proper use of SPF and regular skin exams with a board-certified dermatologist.”

So why do they say ‘Black don’t crack’?

In short, darker skin tones have more melanin, and that melanin does act as a natural protectant from UV rays. Robinson explained that the more protection skin has from UV rays, the less those UV rays will play a role in breaking down collagen and elastin, the building blocks of our skin that give it its youthful fullness and elasticity. 

How are young people at risk?

As discussed above, one of the things that makes you more susceptible to skin cancer is UV ray exposure, which can happen when you don’t wear adequate amounts of sunscreen AND when you get on those tanning beds.

“Just one tanning bed session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma by 20 percent, squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent, and basal cell carcinoma by 29 percent),” a study from the American Academy of Dermatology explained.

So tanning is only bad if my skin burns?

No! According to Robinson, there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Even if your skin appears healthy, tanning and the sun’s UV rays also break down collagen and elastin, which then promotes signs of aging like wrinkles, skin laxity and hyperpigmentation.

Credit: Getty Images

All right, so how do I prevent skin cancer?

I’m sure many of you saw this coming, but starting with a good SPF is key. “Invest in an SPF that you’ll actually wear — we are lucky to have a lot of options for all skin types that are effective and aesthetically pleasing,” Robinson said.

Should I use a chemical or physical sunscreen?

“In general I prefer physical sunscreens which will sit at the surface of the skin to reflect the sun’s rays back,” said Robinson. “Look for active ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.”

According to Lain, chemical blockers tend to degrade more quickly when exposed to UV compared to physical blockers.

Many sunscreens now have stabilizing ingredients to make up for that,” Lain told In The Know. “Physical blockers also require fewer ingredients to achieve broad-spectrum coverage than chemical blockers.”

Put more simply: “For those with sensitive skin, I usually recommend a physical blocker due to the shorter ingredient list,” Lain said. “For those interested in the cosmetic elegance of the sunscreen, I usually direct them to chemical blockers since these are more likely to absorb without leaving a white residue on the skin that can be found with physical blockers.” 

Should I wear sunscreen even when I’m indoors?

Sunscreen is non-negotiable, and even if you are not finding yourself outdoors, putting it on is still an important step in preventing exposure. “Our window glass blocks UVB rays, but UVA rays can still penetrate,” explained Robinson. “UVA rays are primarily associated with aging the skin, however, they contribute to DNA damage as well. Furthermore, wearing SPF will help protect your skin from blue light exposure, from your laptop, phone and more.”

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