Skin cancer: it’s one of those buzzwords we hear thrown around when people talk about the dangers of things like tanning beds or bad sunburns. Is it something collegiettes actually need to worry about? The simple answer is yes. Skin cancer is definitely a problem that’s affecting college students at a sky-high rate, partially because certain things that are just a part of college life (think football tailgating, walking to class, tanning in a bed over the winter or on the beach during spring break, and other outdoor activities that take place all over campus) can be huge contributors to developing skin cancer. Her Campus has you covered with six major things all collegiettes should know about the basics of skin cancer, and why it’s so important to know these things now. Trust us – your skin will thank you.
Reason one: Not enough collegiettes know what skin cancer really is.
Lots of diseases become scary phrases thrown at you whenever you pay a visit to your doctor—from cancer, STIs, meningitis, mono, and strep, it can be hard to tell what you should really be concerned about.
Unfortunately, skin cancer is definitely something you want to keep on your radar. “It can be really scary when it happens to someone you know,” says Lilly*, a senior at Boston University. “When I heard my cousin had something removed last year because of skin cancer, it really shook me up. It really made me realize that skin cancer isn’t just something that happens to random people.”
Like any type of cancer, skin cancer is the technical name for what happens when your skin cells start dividing and multiplying in funky ways. With skin cancer, weird divisions and multiplications usually occur as a result of too much exposure to UV light. According to the Minnesota Oncology Center, skin cancer is usually broken down into two different categories: melanoma (a cancer that begins in the cells that help determine what color your skin is) and non-melanoma (a cancer that begins in cells just under the top layer of your skin).
Both of these types of cancer are typically detected or found in areas of your body that receive a lot of exposure to the sun, like your face or neck. Non-melanoma cancers are more common since they’re found on or just under the top layer of your skin. Melanoma strains of skin cancer tend to be more serious and aggressive, and they’re not always as easy to detect.
Reason two: The risk of getting skin cancer isn’t something you can just say YOLO to, and shrug off.
You’re young and healthy – skin cancer couldn’t possibly affect you, right? Wrong! “My cousin is a year younger than me,” shares Lilly. “I think that’s what shook me the most. I just kept thinking how that could have been me.”
If you’ve ever had severe sunburn or you regularly go out in the sun with no sunscreen, or if other members of your family have dealt with skin cancer, you’re a prime candidate for developing skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is actually the most common form of cancer, and affects over two million people every year. This number is way too high, considering there are tons of things everyone can do to significantly lower their chances of developing it.
What’s even more alarming, though, is that the frequency of teenagers and college students getting skin cancer is at an all-time high. One study published by the Mayo Clinic found that the category with the highest increase in new cases of skin cancer were women in their 20s and 30s. Researchers conducting the study point to the use of tanning beds and poor sunscreen use playing a huge role in this rapid increase in skin cancer in collegiettes. It just goes to show what you do now makes a huge difference when it comes to your chances of developing skin cancer later in life. Taking that extra minute or two to slather on a sunscreen with a higher SPF could make all the difference in the world.
Reason three: It doesn’t matter what month it is.
Skin cancer’s only something that I can develop in the summer when the sun’s at its strongest, right? Wrong again! Some experts argue that winter weather actually leads to increased chances to develop skin cancer. Many of us don’t even think about throwing sunscreen into our bags when packing for a weekend on the slopes, or taking a minute to find protection for our faces before going out for an afternoon of skating or sledding. The sun’s just as strong in the winter though, and you’re still exposed to UV radiation, the part of sunlight that contributes to skin cancer.
“In the winter, you have no natural protection,” says Dr. Maria Tsoukas, an assistant professor doctor who specializes in skin cancer at the University of Chicago. “Even in the winter, we recommend you use a facial moisturizer to protect your face and neck.” (As an extra bonus, these usually help keep your skin from drying out as well when you’re whipping down the slopes or laughing it up in the snow with friends!) Dr. Tsoukas stresses the importance of making a point to apply sunscreen and protect any exposed parts of your body when enjoying the winter weather. She argues that most of us aren’t as tan in the winter as we are in the summer, removing some of the protection or “immunity” we build up during warmer months by going out in the sun more often.
Dr. Tsoukas also says it’s particularly important to protect yourself if you’re planning to be outside for a long period of time for activities like skiing or skating on sunny days when there’s lots of snow on the ground. “With skiing, there’s lots of light reflected, which means lots of radiation gets reflected as well,” she explains. If you have lighter skin (or even skin that’s way lighter in the winter compared to the summer) or you spend a lot of time outdoors for whatever reason, make sure you’re super careful about sun protection.
Another huge danger associated with skin cancer and winter months is an increase in the amount of people that turn to tanning beds to keep their summer glow. There is an increasing, overwhelming amount of evidence on the dangerous correlation between tanning beds and skin cancer. “Skin exposed during tanning is very dangerous because you’re only exposed to UV light,” says Dr. Tsoukas. “Studies show an increased risk of skin cancer up to 75 percent with tanning bed exposure.” Be smart, and stay away from the tanning beds. If you really want some color, find a safer alternative like spray tanning, or experimenting with different self-tanners.