The top 7 myths about skin. Busted.


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by ABC Health and Wellbeing

There’s plenty of myths and misinformation about the largest organ in our body, the skin. Here, experts with years of experience and knowledge offer the low-down on seven popular beliefs about skin.

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1. Skin cancers only appear on skin that’s been exposed to sun.

It's true the sun's ultraviolet light has the power to damage our genes and this is far and away the major cause of skin cancers, says Cancer Council Australia CEO Professor Ian Olver.

But if there's any downside to the success of skin cancer awareness campaigns, it's perhaps the misperception that the sun is the only cause of skin cancer. It's not.

Between the toes, on the soles of the feet, even around the genitals... skin cancers can appear on body parts that rarely or never see the sun.

"The strongest 'non-sun' factor is a bad gene you've inherited," Olver says.

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About 10 per cent of melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer, occur in people with a family history of melanoma. In these people, the odds a skin cancer will be in a hidden body part are higher than for others because of the "bad genes" they have inherited.

"If you've got a cancer-causing gene, you've already got some or most of the changes needed [to trigger a cancer] because you've inherited them," he says. But melanomas can occur in hidden parts of the body even where there isn't any obvious family history.


The bottom line is, whether it's a sun-exposed body part or not, you need to be aware of changes that might be a cancer, Olver says.

2. Using vitamin E cream daily will improve the look of a scar.

Verdict: False, research has shown vitamin E cream has no beneficial effect on scars.

Despite the marketing hype, research has clearly shown vitamin E has absolutely no beneficial effect on scars, says Dr Phillip Artemi, a Sydney dermatologist and Honorary Secretary of the Australasian College of Dermatologists.

"People put a vitamin E cream on, [and over time] notice the improvement, and quite incorrectly, think 'oh it's this stuff I'm putting on' but it's not," Artemi says.

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It's just that as your body forms a scar, there is a natural process of slow and gradual improvement over a period of about 12 months.

Dermatologists now consider it "a proven scientific fact" that applying vitamin E is of no value to scars, as several studies have tested the idea, Artemi says. One study even found that in almost a third of cases, vitamin E caused a common skin irritation known as contact dermatitis. Certain dressings can help improve scars in their early stages. But after about a year, only treatments from a dermatologist may be helpful.

3. Sea water helps to heal sores

Verdict: Not necessarily. Sometimes it can also make sores worse.


Salt water, that is saline, has long been used in wound management but the solutions used for this purpose are sterile (free of bacteria) and the ocean is not.

There are several things to consider before you decide to head into the ocean with an open cut or wound: the state of your immune system, the state of the wound, the state of the ocean in which you are swimming and whether you are in the tropics, says infectious disease and tropical infection expert Professor Bart Currie.

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The water in estuaries and near rocks or coral is especially risky, Currie says. Bacteria are also common in oceans that are close to fisheries, mines, farms, stormwater drains and sewage plants; the runoff from this is particularly bad after periods of heavy rain. And tropical waters can be home to some really nasty bacteria as warmer water encourages bacterial growth, Currie says.

"Basically you shouldn't look at swimming in the ocean as a way to cure an open wound."

4. Higher SPF sunscreen means you can stay in the sun longer.

Verdict: True, but probably not for as long as you think.

The sun protection factor (SPF) of a sunscreen refers to the length of time it takes for your skin to burn when you are in the sun while wearing sunscreen.

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So if you normally burn in 10 minutes under certain conditions without sunscreen, you have around 300 minutes of grace (assuming the same UV conditions) if you are wearing SPF30 or SPF30+. With SPF50+, it's more like 500 minutes.


But this simple equation can give people a misleading sense of confidence, says Terry Slevin, education and research director at Cancer Council WA. This is because you only achieve the SPF number on the label if you are very meticulous in how you put on your sunscreen and most of us don't apply sunscreen properly.

5. Putting butter on a burn will help it heal.

Verdict: False, it won't help and it might actually be harmful.

The notion of using butter to treat burns stems come from the early 1900s, says Dr Leila Cuttle, a scientist with the Centre for Children's Burns and Trauma Research at Brisbane's Royal Children's Hospital.

"People thought oily substances like butter and powdered substances like flour were helpful. But there wasn't much rigorous research in those days. People would often just apply something to a burn and say 'oh that feels better' or 'that healed nicely' and therefore assume their method worked. And so they would keep using it."

But butter and some other remedies might actually be harmful, she says.

"Home remedies can be dangerous because they are not generally clean. Butter could contain bacteria that could cause an infection. I can't say definitively it will make a burn worse, but it certainly won't make it better the way cold water does."

Running cold water from the tap on a burn for 20 minutes does significantly improve healing as well as prevent scarring. This process can work anytime up to three hours after the injury.


6. Can face creams keep your skin looking younger?

Verdict: Only if it's sunscreen.

Anti-ageing is big business. It's hard to turn on the television, browse online or flick through a magazine without coming across an advertisement for a face cream that promises to wipe years off your face.

But beyond the hype is there any quality scientific evidence to suggest that using face cream will stop your skin from ageing?

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The short answer is no, says Associate Professor Stephen Shumack, president of the Australasian College of Dermatologists.

There's no evidence from any large peer-reviewed study to back up the anti-ageing claims made by makers of skin creams, he says.

Of those studies that have been done, they are almost always sponsored by the skin cream companies themselves, and this makes it hard for experts to take these results seriously.

However, there is a one cream that will help slow down the effects of ageing on your skin – sunscreen.

7. People with red faces have high blood pressure.

Verdict: False, a red face isn't a sign of high blood pressure.

A red face can have a wide variety of causes including rosacea (a skin condition that may also cause swelling and sores), allergies, inflammatory conditions, fever, and sunburn. Medications (including some used to lower blood pressure) can also cause a red face as a side effect. However, one thing that's very unlikely to be behind your red face is high blood pressure. That doesn't mean you can't have a red face when you've got high blood pressure, but most people don't, says cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings.


In fact high blood pressure – when the force pumping blood exerts on artery walls is greater than normal – nearly always has no outward signs at all.

There are usually no inward signs for that matter either, which is why it's vital to have regular checks taken by a doctor, says Jennings, the director and chief executive officer of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.

However, very severe high blood pressure may cause symptoms such as headache or breathlessness.

One reason for the misconception may be that some factors that can raise blood pressure in the short-term can also give you a red face. These include exercise and alcohol.

But whether you've got a flushed face from alcohol, exercise or emotions, the bodily changes involved are completely different from those causing high blood pressure.

"High blood pressure is a problem that starts in the very tiny arteries going away from the heart. Redness or any kind of flushing is actually on the other side of the circulation, in the veins, which aren't particularly affected by high blood pressure."

This article originally appeared on The ABC and has been republished here with permission.

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