Ask the Expert: Myth busting common misconceptions about skin cancer

Caoimhe Sully, a Check4Cancer Skin Cancer Specialist Nurse, dispels some common myths about the risks, signs, and symptoms of skin cancer and how to protect your skin from the sun.

Myth No 1: It's okay to use a sunbed before you go on holiday; a ‘base tan’ prevents burning

The Facts 

Sunbeds are not safe: ‘FACT’. 

A common misconception is that a sunbed tan will prepare or protect your skin before you go on holiday – it won’t! The intensity of some types of UV rays from sunbeds can be up to 10 -15 times higher than that of the midday sun.

Research has proven that sunbeds give out the same harmful UV rays as the sun, damaging the DNA in our skin cells, which can cause all types of skin cancer. It is estimated that sunbeds cause around 100 deaths from melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) in the UK each year, with cases rising at an alarming rate.

Using a sunbed just once a month can increase your risk of skin cancer by more than half, and regular sunbed use under the age of 35 years increases the risk of skin cancer by an alarming 75%.  Please don’t use them to build up a ‘base tan’. 

Myth No 2: You need a suntan to get Vitamin D

The Facts 

The body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin when outdoors, but a suntan is not necessary. Exposing commonly uncovered areas of the skin (such as the forearms and hands) for short periods of 15 - 20 minutes (slightly longer for those with darker skin) when in strong sunlight is sufficient to provide vitamin D. However, the sun should be avoided at the hottest time of day, between 11.00 and 15.00 hrs. Sunbeds do not contribute to vitamin D synthesis¹.

All adults living in the UK who are at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency (for example, those who cannot get outside easily) should be advised to take a daily supplement containing 400 international units (10 micrograms) of vitamin D throughout the year, including in the winter months¹.

Myth No 3: Black and darker skin types won't develop skin cancer

The Facts  

Certain skin types are at greater risk of sun damage. However, all skin types can be damaged by over-exposure to UV radiation, and therefore to varying degrees we are ALL at risk of developing skin cancer. Specific risk factors include numbers of moles and freckles, family history, and excessive sun exposure. 

Myth No 4: Sunscreens contain chemicals that are bad for you

The Facts 

The benefits of using sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays certainly outweigh any concerns over whether they contain chemicals that are bad for you. Chemical sunscreens (also called organic filters) work by absorbing UV radiation² and often contain a combination of ingredients to provide coverage against both UVB and UVA radiation, which causes immunosuppression and DNA damage changes that may lead to skin cancer.

Small amounts of sunscreen ingredients have been found to be absorbed after regular use; however, there are no known harms from these ingredients being systemically absorbed by the skin².

The biggest problem with sunscreen is that it is not always applied correctly to the skin before sun exposure. Many people:

  • Apply sunscreen at about one-third of the thickness needed to provide adequate protection³. Applying sunscreen too thinly will reduce the Sun Protection Factor (SPF)
  • Fail to apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of the skin
  • Forget to reapply sunscreen every couple of hours or after heavy sweating or swimming

Choosing the right sunscreen 

  • Choose a high SPF. Most fair-skinned people will need SPF 30 or higher to stop them from burning in the summertime
  • Choose a sunscreen product with a superior UVA 4-5 star-rated protection symbol

Applying sunscreen correctly

  • Apply your SPF 30+ sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside and always reapply at least every two hours
  • It is important to use a generous amount: the average-sized adult should apply at least a teaspoon of sunscreen to each arm, leg, front and back of body and at least half a teaspoon to the face (not forgetting the ears and neck)

 Choosing the right sunscreen

Myth No 5: Start with a high SPF and reduce as you "tan"

The Facts

The SPF number relates to the length of time you can spend in the sun without burning from UVB radiation. When correctly applied, SPF 15 provides about 94% protection against UVB rays, SPF 30 = 97% and SPF 50+ = 98%. SPF does not work on a sliding scale of protection,4 you are protected, or you are not. It is important therefore to choose a high SPF and apply correctly and reapply often.

As a rule of thumb you should:

  • Apply SPF 30+ broad-spectrum 4 star+ rated, waterproof sunscreen every two hours
  • Make sure that the sunscreen has a UVA symbol
  • Never rely on sunscreen alone to protect your skin

Myth No 6: Put a sunblock or higher SPF on specific moles to protect against skin cancer

The Facts 

Melanoma is often something that arrives as new on your skin5, not only from an existing mole. To protect yourself against developing a melanoma skin cancer you should apply a sunscreen high in both UVA and UVB protection to all your exposed skin, not just on specific moles.

It is useful to remember the ABCDE Melanoma Rule, which is a guide to help you look out for any moles on the skin that change in size, shape or colour, or become itchy or start bleeding.

The ABCDE Rule Skin Cancer PNG 

If you are concerned about any moles or lesions then consult your GP or Check4Cancer immediately to get them checked out.

To find out more about our skin cancer screening service, please click here, or to view our nationwide network of skin cancer screening clinics, click here.


¹ Vitamin D deficiency in adults - treatment and prevention | Health topics A to Z | CKS | NICE






Caoimhe Sully – Check4Cancer Skin Cancer Specialist Nurse

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Caoimhe studied General Nursing at University College Dublin, passing the four-year degree course with honours. After qualifying, Caoimhe took a position with a well renowned Dermatology Consultant in Dublin, with whom she worked closely for five years. This is where her interest in dermatology and skin cancer began and blossomed, and Caoimhe is currently studying for her Masters in Dermatology at Hertfordshire University.

In 2014 Caoimhe moved to London and has worked in nurse-led clinics providing skin cancer screening using dermoscopy. She is passionate about educating and empowering her clients to be aware of the risk, signs and symptoms of skin cancer.