Leading dermatologist dispels myths, says teens need better protection to avoid cancer.
Of the approximately 1.3 million Americans who will learn they have melanomas or other skin cancers this year a growing percentage will be young people. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is now the most common cancer among Americans aged 25 to 29, and it is the Number One cause of cancer death among 15 to 20 year olds. Melanoma is linked to too much exposure to the sun in the first 10 to 19 years of life, a period during which according to some reports almost 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposures occurs. Despite skin cancer’s devastating effects on teenagers and the many health risks faced by teens seeking the perfect tan, young sun worshippers continue to soak in the sun’s dangerous rays at an alarming rate.
Study after study has shown that teens ignore the warnings in their quest to “look good.” In the recent American Academy of Dermatology Sun Exposure Teen Study, 63 percent of teens said they look better when they’re tan and 43 percent of teens admit they lay out in the sun, while less than one-third say they always use sun block. Nearly the same percentage say they never use sun block. Joshua Fox, MD, a leading dermatologist and founder of Advanced Dermatology, P.C., warns that teens are at a greater risk and seeks to dispel some of the myths that sun-seeking teens believe, including:
1. Skin cancer is only for older people. In fact, says Dr. Fox, “while melanoma usually develops many years after a person’s excessive sun exposure as a child, we are finding it with alarming increased frequency in kids. For example, just last week I had an eighteen year old boy, who liked outdoor sports, diagnosed with an invasive melanoma. Research shows that many forms of skin cancer start as a result of over-exposure to the sun during childhood. One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence may more than double a person’s chances of developing a melanoma later in life.”
2. Tans make you look healthy. Dr. Fox says, “There is no such thing as a healthy tan and asserts that tans do just the opposite.” “Both sunburns and suntans compromise skin cell DNA and cause changes that over time age the skin, giving it a wrinkled, leathery appearance with enlarged pores and cause brown liver spots and white and yellow splotches. But if you are partial to the appearance of having the “color of a tan” try applying a self-tanner which can last for several days. Dr. Fox warns that this does NOT protect the skin from the sun’s exposure.
3. Tanning salons are safer than the sun. While the indoor tanning industry tells kids that tanning beds and sun lamps are safer than lying on the beach in the hot sun, “ongoing use of indoor tanning can be quite dangerous,” Dr. Fox says. “It can increase the risk of developing malignant melanoma by more than 55 percent, and it could nearly double the chances of several other types of skin cancers.” Most sun lamps and tanning beds emit mainly UVA radiation. While these rays don’t necessarily cause sunburn as quickly as does UVB radiation from sunlight, that does not make them safe. “UVA rays actually cause deeper skin damage, and like UVB rays, they also may be linked to immune system damage, premature skin aging and skin cancer promotion,” Dr. Fox says, citing a report of the American Academy of Dermatology. “UVA is a carcinogen, and studies have shown that tanning salons frequently exceed ‘safe’ UV limits, with the rays emitted in aStudy after study tanning parlor being up to 15 times that of the sun.”
4. Sunburn is worse than a tan. “Both are dangerous,” says Dr. Fox, “because both cause DNA damage to the skin cells. While sunburn has been directly linked to skin cancermelanoma, tans also are dangerous because they cause slower damage to the skin, so teens may not realize that they are causing harm.” Most teens realize that a sunburn is bad for you.
5. Sunscreen is only for the beach. “Teenagers at the beach on a hot summer’s day are not the only ones at risk,” says Dr. Fox. “Sun damage occurs anywhere, any time your skin is exposed to sunlight, during all four seasons, whether at the beach or park, on a boat, a ski mountain or golf course. Kids must use sunscreen every time they are outdoors in the sun – even on cloudy days.”
6. Tans are healthy. Many people associate a suntan with good health and vitality. “While Vitamin D is necessary to the body and may help prevent certain cancers,” Dr. Fox says, “just a small amount of sunlight is needed for the body to manufacture it, far less than the amount that creates a suntan and sunburn. Actually a person is better off taking Vitamin D supplements than going out into the sun”.
7. Tan sprays have SPF. Many teens protect themselves from the sun by using self-tanning sprays thinking they’ll get that “healthy” tan look without the sun damage. “That’s only true if a person avoids the sun entirely.” Dr. Fox explained that, while tanning sprays may make teens look tan, they don’t offer any protection from the sun’s damaging rays. “Self-tanners may, in fact, make the skin more susceptible to damage. You will still need to apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 after self-tanning,” he says.