“A healthy tan”? You don’t hear that much anymore. Most people know that sun exposure has been linked to skin cancer.
And as Consumer Reports’ testers have found, sunscreens have become better over the years: easier to apply, lasting longer and offering better protection against multiple forms of ultraviolet radiation. So why do rates of skin cancer continue to climb?
One reason is increased awareness, says Allan Halpern, chief of the dermatology service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
“The incidence is greater, in part, because we are looking harder and finding more cancers at an earlier stage,” he says. “Also, people are living longer.” The damage from ultraviolet radiation might take decades to become apparent and is cumulative, so skin-cancer risk increases with age.
To find out how your sun smarts measure up, take this quiz from Consumer Reports.
• True or false: Skin cancer accounts for about half of all U.S. cancers.
True. Each year the number of new cases exceeds that of breast, colon, lung and prostate cancer combined. About one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Melanoma accounts for fewer than 5 percent of skin-cancer cases but causes more than 75 percent of deaths.
• True or false: Men and women are at equal risk of getting skin cancer. False. Overall, men are at higher risk of melanoma because they tend to spend more time outdoors and are less diligent about using sunscreen.
• True or false: Melanoma’s death rate is higher for those with darker skin. True. The main reason seems to be that deadly cancers go undetected more often in people with darker skin until the condition reaches an advanced stage.
l True or false: Having a lot of regular moles increases the risk of melanoma. True. “A lot” is roughly defined as about 50 or more. Other factors include having a parent, child or sibling with skin cancer; red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or a tendency to sunburn easily; three or more blistering sunburns before age 20 or having worked outdoors three or more summers as a teenager; lots of freckles, especially on your upper back; and actinic keratoses (persistent scaly patches of skin) or suspicious moles.
• True or false: You can get skin cancer only on areas exposed to the sun. False. You should examine your skin at least once yearly — the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you “check your birthday suit on your birthday” — or more frequently if you are at higher risk.
• True or false: Nearly all skin cancer is curable. True. Even for melanomas, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent if caught before it reaches the lymph nodes. The rate drops to 15 percent if the cancer spreads to other organs.
• True or false: Too many people skimp on sunscreen. True. Most people use it in a way that provides a sun protection factor of less than 10. To achieve the protection claimed on the label, adults should use about two tablespoons of lotion applied to the entire body. Choose a product with an SPF factor of at least 30, which, applied scrupulously, should allow you to stay in the sun without reddening 30 times longer than normal.
• True or false: Make sunscreen your first line of defense. False. It should actually take third place, behind wearing protective clothing (a long-sleeved shirt, pants or a long skirt, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses) and staying out of the midday sun. When your shadow is shorter than you are, it’s wise to seek shade.
• True or false: Using sunscreen prevents you from getting enough Vitamin D. False. Modest amounts of unprotected sun exposure during summer — about two to eight minutes daily — should be enough for most people.
• True or false: Tanning beds are a safe alternative to sun exposure. False. Recent evidence suggests that indoor tanning beds can quadruple your risk of developing melanoma.