Understanding Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer Myths

April 3, 2023


Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States and can occur on any part of the body.1 While people may have heard of melanoma, many don’t know about nonmelanoma skin cancer, the most common type of skin cancer.2 The number of people diagnosed and treated for nonmelanoma skin cancer has increased by 77% in the past two decades.3 While it’s important to be aware of the risks and symptoms of skin cancer, there are a lot of myths about this condition.

In this guide, we’ll debunk some of the most common skin cancer myths and give you information about how to protect yourself from this disease.

Myth #1: Tanning beds are safe and don’t cause skin cancer.

In 2009, the World Health Organization officially declared indoor tanning devices as a cancer-causing agent. This puts tanning beds in the same category as tobacco products.4,5

The ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted from tanning beds are just as harmful as those emitted from the sun.6 In fact, indoor tanning is associated with an increased risk for nonmelanoma skin cancer.7

Research also shows that the frequent use of tanning beds at a young age can increase one’s risk of developing nonmelanoma skin cancer.7 Today, over 40 states in the US have restricted access to indoor tanning by either banning the use of tanning beds for minors or requiring parental consent.4

Taking action against a once seemingly “harmless” beauty maintenance routine is a step in the right direction in the fight against nonmelanoma skin cancer.

Bottom line: Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps. If you prefer a tanner appearance, opt for products that don’t require UV ray exposure and layer with sunscreen.

Myth #2: Skin cancer only affects older people, so young people don’t need to worry.

Skin cancer prevention is important at every age.

When people are overexposed to the sun at a younger age, the chances of developing skin cancer later in life become higher.8

Health experts recommend getting skin cancer screenings regularly to detect any early signs. If you notice any new spots or changes in the shape, color or size of the spots on your body, do not hesitate to get checked by your doctor.9

Bottom line: People of all ages can be impacted by sun exposure. Protecting your skin is essential to reducing your chances of developing skin cancer.

Myth #3: People with darker skin can’t get skin cancer.

Nonmelanoma skin cancer forms in the outermost layer of the skin.2 While people with darker skin naturally have a lower risk of contracting this disease than fair-skinned people, this doesn’t mean that they are completely immune. In fact, no one is immune from nonmelanoma skin cancer. In many cases, darker-skinned people who are diagnosed with skin cancer have a higher death rate than those with lighter skin.10

This happens because skin cancer in people of color is often detected at a much later and more dangerous stage. Both doctors and patients can miss the early signs of skin cancer, often resulting in an untreatable diagnosis.10

Bottom line: It’s important for all people – including those of African-American, Hispanic or Asian descent – to protect their skin and eyes from overexposure to the sun. Yes, that means applying sunscreen regularly and using other protective gear, such as sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats! 11

Myth #4: It’s not necessary to apply sunscreen in the winter or on cloudy days.

It’s easy to remember to apply sunscreen during a vacation or on a scorching hot summer day. However, on the days where the sun isn’t shining, do you still need to slather on sunscreen?

The answer is yes. You still need to apply sunscreen both in the winter and in overcast conditions.

Research shows that UV rays from the sun can still pass through clouds and ultimately reach the earth’s surface.12 Snow can also reflect up to 80% of UV radiation, making it imperative to protect your skin year-round.12

Bottom line: It’s best practice to apply sunscreen everyday. Research shows that regular use of sunscreen can reduce your risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer.13 Broad-spectrum sunscreens with a SPF level of 30 or higher are the most effective. Try limiting your sun exposure to times where the sun is weaker. You should also wear long-sleeved clothing and other protective gear during times of sun exposure.11

Myth #5: Getting a “base tan” prevents sunburn.

The “base tan myth” is a common misconception. Many people believe that getting a light tan can limit your chances of getting a sunburn during future periods of sun exposure.

While this may seem logical to some, going out in the sun with a tan doesn’t actually protect your skin from UV rays.14 Dermatologists recommend SPF 30 or higher to effectively stop any potential damage caused by exposure, which includes re-applying every two hours.11

Having a base tan before further sun exposure is only equivalent to a SPF level of 3.15 The harmful UV rays emitted from tanning beds outweigh any small amount of protection that they may provide.

Bottom line: All forms of tanning are harmful. Any extra melanin in tanned skin provides a SPF below the minimum recommended. So tanning often occurs at the price of your health.16

Myth #6: You can only get vitamin D through sun exposure.

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for the human body. And while daily exposure to sunlight is a good source of vitamin D, overexposure to the sun causes more harm than good.17,18

Incorporating fatty fish, eggs and fortified dairy into your diet is an easy way to get the vitamin D your body needs, while also eliminating the need for sunbathing.17  

Bottom line: Being overexposed to the sun is never good for the skin. Opt to get a sufficient amount of vitamin D through your daily diet and/or supplements.

Myth #7: You don’t need to reapply sunscreen, even when it’s waterproof.

Reapplying sunscreen every two hours, even when it’s waterproof and 100 SPF is the best way to effectively protect your skin from sun exposure, especially after swimming or sweating. Even if you spend most of your time indoors, protecting yourself from the UV rays that pass through glass windows is still necessary.11

Depending on how long you are exposed to the sun, the first layer of sunscreen can break down or rub off over time– making it no longer as effective.11

Bottom line: Don’t skip out on re-applying sunscreen. No sunscreen provides 100% protection during long periods of sun exposure, so reapplication is the best way to protect yourself from the sun, in addition to wearing protective clothing.11

Myth #8: Skin cancer is only caused by sun exposure.

While skin cancers are primarily caused by the sun, there are many other risk factors that can make one susceptible to developing it down the line.

Family history of skin cancer, UV ray exposure from tanning devices and a weakened immune system are all causes of skin cancer.19

Bottom line: Anyone can get skin cancer, and it’s important to be aware of all the risk factors, not just sun exposure, and to get consistent check of your skin.

Myth #9: Skin cancer isn’t deadly.

One in five white Americans are likely to develop skin cancer in their lifetime20, and while nonmelanoma skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early, research shows that approximately 2,000 people in the U.S. die from this type of cancer each year.5,21

Bottom line: Skin cancer can be deadly and should be taken seriously. If you notice any changes in your skin, be sure to see a dermatologist right away.

It’s important to remember that skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of age, race or ethnicity.22 The best way to protect yourself is to learn the facts and take action.

  1. Skin Cancer. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer.html. Accessed March 28, 2023.
  2. What Are Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/basal-and-squamous-cell-skin-cancer/about/what-is-basal-and-squamous-cell.html. Accessed March 28, 2023.
  3. Mohan SV, Chang AL. Advanced basal cell carcinoma: Epidemiology and therapeutic innovations. Current Dermatology Reports. 2014;3(1):40-45. doi:10.1007/s13671-014-0069-y
  4. Dangers of indoor tanning. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/awareness/dangers-tanning. Accessed October 31,  2022.
  5. Sunbeds and UV radiation. International Agency for Research on Cancer. https://www.iarc.who.int/media-centre-iarc-news-32/. Accessed November 1, 2022.
  6. 10 surprising facts about indoor tanning. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/surprising-facts-about-indoor-tanning. Accessed March 28, 2023.
  7. An S, Kim K, Moon S, et al. Indoor tanning and the risk of overall and early-onset melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Cancers. 2021;13(23):5940. doi:10.3390/cancers13235940
  8. Wu S, Han J, Laden F, Qureshi A. Long-term ultraviolet flux, other potential risk factors, and skin cancer risk: a cohort study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2014;6. Doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-13-0821
  9. Early detection: overview: spot the cancer you can see when it’s easiest to treat. Skin Cancer Foundation. https://www.skincancer.org/early-detection/. Accessed March 29, 2023. 
  10. Gupta A, Bharadwaj M, Mehrotra R. Skin cancer concerns in people of color: risk factors and prevention. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2016. Doi:10.22034/APJCP.2016.17.12.5257
  11. How do I protect myself from ultraviolet (UV) rays? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/be-safe-in-sun/uv-protection.html#. Accessed on March 29, 2023.
  12. Radiation: ultraviolet (UV) radiation. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/radiation-ultraviolet-(uv). Accessed on March 31, 2023.
  13. Hung M, Beazer I, Su S, et al. An exploration of the use and impact of preventive measures on skin cancer. Healthcare. 2022;4. Doi:10.3390/healthcare10040743
  14. The risks of tanning. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/tanning/risks-tanning#:~:text=And%2C%20contrary%20to%20popular%20belief,minimum%20recommended%20SPF%20of%2015. Accessed on March 29, 2023.
  15. Young A. Tanning devices – fast track to skin cancer? Pigment Cell Res. 2004;2. Doi: 10.1046/j.1600-0749.2003.00117.x
  16. Brenner M, Hearing V. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochem Photobiol. 2009/5. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-1097.2007.00226.x
  17. Holman DM, Berkowitz Z, Guy GP, Lunsford NB, Coups EJ. The association between beliefs about vitamin D and skin cancer risk-related behaviors. Preventive Medicine. 2017;99:326-331. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.03.007
  18. Ultraviolet radiation. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ultraviolet-radiation. Accessed March 29, 2023
  19. Risk factors. Skin Cancer Foundation. https://www.skincancer.org/risk-factors/. Accessed March 29, 2023. 
  20. Stern, RS. Prevalence of a history of skin cancer in 2007: results of an incidence-based model. Arch Dermatol. 2010; 146(3):279-282.
  21. Basal & squamous cell skin cancer statistics. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/basal-and-squamous-cell-skin-cancer/about/key-statistics.html. Accessed November 2, 2022.
  22. Anyone can get skin cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/anyone-can-get-skin-cancer#:~:text=Anyone%20can%20get%20skin%20cancer.,children%20can%20develop%20skin%20cancer. Accessed March 29, 2023.