Most people are clueless about watching out for skin cancer, survey reveals

NEW YORK — Without the proper protection, sun exposure is one of the leading causes of melanoma and it is important to be aware of any changes to your skin. But how do you know what’s normal and what is not? New research suggests four in five millennials and Gen Xers can’t identify nonmelanoma skin cancer.

The poll of 1,000 millennials and 1,000 Gen X respondents found that about 80 percent were unable to identify nonmelanoma skin cancer when shown the names to their corresponding images. Seventy-nine percent couldn’t identify squamous cell carcinoma, and 82 percent couldn’t identify basal cell carcinoma. A similar proportion of respondents (79%) couldn’t place actinic keratosis, a lesion that develops in sun-damaged skin and can progress to squamous cell carcinoma. 

Harmful behavior can lead to skin cancer

Respondents also revealed a lack of knowledge when it comes to proactive measures to reduce the harmful effects of sun exposure. While 75 percent said they’re mindful of how much they’re out in the Sun, only 19 percent wear sunscreen year-round. Many also admit to going outside on a sunny day without sunscreen (78%), a hat or head covering (72%), or UV-protective glasses (70%). 

Past behaviors of millennials and Gen X may affect their overall skin cancer risk. More than one third (35%) have used a tanning bed and one in five (20%) did not wear sunscreen as a teenager. They also applied baby oil or tanning oil in the Sun (43%) with almost half of women (49%) using baby oil or tanning oil, compared to 34 percent of men. 

Conducted by OnePoll on behalf of DermTech, the survey also found that overall, most respondents use sunscreen on their face (63%), with only 38 percent doing so on their legs and feet, and even less applying it to their chest (36%) and back (31%). 

Woman applying sunscreen to her legs
(Photo by on Pexels)

What are the signs of skin cancer?

Only 41 percent were aware that sun exposure can cause precancerous lesions (actinic keratosis) to appear over time. While many correctly said spots that change colors (64%) or size (63%) can be characteristics of skin cancer, fewer knew an open sore that lasts for weeks (36%) is a potential sign.

People’s skin cancer knowledge mainly comes from health websites or blogs (43%), compared to 35 percent who learned this information at school.

However, Gen X may be more proactive when it comes to getting a skin cancer screening. Thirty-one percent of 42 to 57-year-olds polled wouldn’t wait to hear someone’s opinion of a change in their skin to get tested, compared to 21 percent of millennials. 

“While more information is available about the dangers of UV exposure, this research shows that 44 percent of those polled did not feel knowledgeable about any type of skin cancer, especially nonmelanoma skin cancer,” says board-certified pathologist, dermatopathologist, and chief medical officer at DermTech, Loren Clarke, MD, in a statement. “There is a need to educate Americans about skin cancer. Today, we are launching a new disease education campaign, Sun Regrets, focused on helping Americans become knowledgeable about harmful sun exposure, how they can protect their skin year-round, and the importance of education leading to protective actions that can help decrease their risk of skin cancer.”

Only 25 percent of respondents were “very likely” to get a skin cancer screening if they didn’t see any notable changes in their skin. However, 57 percent would schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider or specialist upon seeing a change in their skin that they think may be skin cancer. 

Half of respondents credit family as an influence to get their skin checked by a doctor.

“Our survey found that approximately one fourth of Millennials and Gen Xers thought an SPF of 30 or lower was adequate, which is not aligned with the American Academy of Dermatology recommendations for protection from damaging UV rays,” adds Dr. Clarke. “Once skin is exposed to UV rays, DNA mutations can accumulate in skin cells, generating non-visible lesions beneath the skin’s surface. Over time, these become visible and can progress to skin cancer. That’s why it’s important to have annual checkups with your dermatologist and consider non-invasive tests that help assess your risk for skin cancers.”

Survey methodology:

This random double-opt-in survey of 1,000 millennials and 1,000 Gen X respondents was commissioned by DermTech between October 31 and November 11, 2022. It was conducted by market research company OnePoll, whose team members are members of the Market Research Society and have corporate membership to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR).

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Sophia Naughton

Meet StudyFinds’ Associate Editor, Sophia Naughton. Sophia graduated Magna Cum Laude from Towson University with a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communication directly focused in journalism and advertising. She is also a freelance writer for Baltimore Magazine. Outside of writing, her best buddy is her spotted Pit Bull, Terrance.

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