Could the type of clothing you wear put you at risk of skin cancer? An expert from the Mayo Clinic tells the FOX 9 Investigators more people need to start asking that question.
It's uncommon for someone as young as 20-year-old Stefanni Pankonin to be haunted with fear, always watching, waiting and worrying, but there is a reason. It all started with a strange-looking spot on her leg, but the 10-inch scar from surgery serves as a reminder that dangerous skin cancer can crop up at as early as the teen years.
"At first, I was like, 'I don't think their testing is right. I don't think I have that at all," Pankonin recalled. "At such a young age, I definitely would not have thought I could be going through that in life."
Yet, it's a scary reality for a growing number of young people. In fact, young women are being diagnosed with melanoma eight times more often than they did in 1970, and other types of skin cancers are also on the rise.
While some forms of skin cancer may not be fatal, they do slowly eat away at skin and can leave people disfigured. The only cure is to cut them out.
"Every time I go to the doctor, I come home with stitches," Pankonin said.
Now, Pankonin's life literally depends on noticing any unusual blemishes and having a surgeon slice them off. The number of scars is 10 and counting.
The culprit for these cancers is usually ultra-violet radiation from the sun or from tanning beds. Those who use the latter -- even just once -- have a 20 percent higher risk of melanoma.
Research by Dr. Jerry Brewer, of the Mayo Clinic, shows regular tanning bed users are 75 percent more likely to get skin cancer, and they can get it as soon as five years after exposure.
For years, dermatologists have been warning patients to avoid tanning beds and lather up with sunscreen before going outdoors, but what most people probably don't know is that there's even a danger for those who are fully clothed on a cloudy day.
"The UV rays make it through clouds and can make it through your shirt and cause damage without causing a burn, so you really don't realize it -- that you are getting damaged," Brewer explained. "Then later, you develop skin cancer."
The type and color of the fabric can make a big difference in how much UV protection clothes offer, and Brewer put some items through a test to illustrate that point.
"This is a device that measures the amount of energy from the sun over a certain area," he explained.
The sun's UV-A rays are the ones that penetrate deep into the skin and contribute to both aging and cancer. While the meter picked up a UV-intensity of seven, a T-shirt dropped the exposure to the equivalent protection of wearing a 5-SPF sunscreen lotion.
"Really thin shirts, like cotton, let a lot of sun through," Brewer said.
The second shirt tested was made of nylon and spandex, a blend sold specifically for people who want sun protection in the water. Before testing the fabric, the meter showed the sun's intensity level was a 5, but it dropped to zero behind the fabric.
A third shirt made of synthetic material but not labeled as a UV-blocking fabric was also tested.
"It does a good job, almost blocks it all out," Brewer said.
Typically, darker fabrics are better for blocking out the sun -- and the tighter the weave, the better. Denim is a great sun-blocker, but it's efficacy degrades after repeated washings.
"If it is washed a lot, it is going to be less likely to protect you," Brewer warned.
Yet, there are products that can be added to the wash to boost the sunscreen protection of clothes up to the level of an SPF 30 lotion.
Unfortunately, Brewer says one of the most common places to find skin cancer isn't one that can be covered easily.
"Forty percent of the cancers we see are on the nose," he explained.
Sometimes, Brewer and his colleagues need to cut and stretch skin from a patient's forehead to rebuild a nose, leaving many with the odd sensation they are touching their forehead whenever they scratch their snout.
"The one thing about hats is that they can give us a false sense of security," Brewer said. "The best is the combination of sunscreen and hat."
An ordinary baseball cap is okay, but a hat with a 3-inch brim that can shade the nose and ears is better.
As for Pankonin, she has a new respect for the power of the sun and the danger of tanning beds. She told FOX 9 News she hopes people take warnings about skin cancer seriously before it is too late.
"I can do my best to control it and wear sunscreen and stuff, but I know my body is going to change now," she said.
Anyone looking for more information about choosing the right clothes for sun protection can find it on the Skin Cancer Foundation's website: http://www.skincancer.org/