Posted May 23, 2012

The link between too much sun and possibly lethal skin cancers is well established. So is the connection between cancer and indoor tanning. That knowledge understandably has prompted a rash of messages and advice about the wisdom of judicious exposure to the sun and indoor tanning as well as the need for the liberal application of sunscreen. Not a lot of people, it seems, are listening.

That’s the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new survey indicates that half of U.S. adults under 30 say they’ve had a sunburn at least once in the previous year. That’s ominous. Almost all physicians agree that even a single blistering burn can double the risk of developing melanoma, an often deadly form of skin cancer. There’s more.

The CDC survey also indicates that indoor tanning remains popular. About 6 percent of all adults in the country said they had tanned indoors in the previous year. The percentage was significantly higher — 32 percent — among white women between 18 and 21, and women in their 20s said they tanned indoors more than 20 times in the same time frame. Those numbers frighten dermatologists, other physicians and public health officials.

The link between indoor tanning and cancer is pretty definitive. A World Health Organization analysis found that the risk of melanoma rose 75 percent in people who began indoor tanning before the age of 30. Indeed, indoor tanning was deemed so dangerous by the WHO that the organization classified tanning devices as carcinogenic in 2009.

More frightening still is the fact that earlier gains made in the campaign to inform the public about the dangers of natural and indoor tanning have eroded in recent years. The number of those who reported a blistering burn dropped to 45 percent in 2005 after widespread public service announcements. The CDC report indicates the number rose to 50 percent in 2010. It seems safe to say, then, that if people are listening to reports about the dangers of the sun and indoor tanning, they are certainly not learning from them.

Failure to heed that information can be costly. The incidence of melanoma has been rising for about three decades. Among whites, who have the highest incidence of the disease, it climbed from 10 per 100,000 in 1975 to 24 per 100,000 in 2009. The pain and suffering those numbers reflect is immense.

About 76,000 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in adults this year. About 9,200 will die. Other skin cancers linked to sun exposure and indoor tanning also are on the rise.

The quest for the perfect tan, it seems, never ends, especially among youngsters and young adults eager to win the approval of their peers. The search can be dangerous. About a third of those seeking that golden glow routinely fail to use sunscreen. The result is sadly predictable in many cases. “It’s the sunburn you got when your were 18 that leads to the cancer that you get when you’re 40. That sunburn will come back to haunt you,” says Dr. Zoe Draelos, vice president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The belief that a great tan always reflects good health is simply wrong. That mindset must change if the United States is to avoid an epidemic of deadly skin cancers.

©2012 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

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