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Sunburn Not Necessary for Skin Cancer

Even Moderate Amount of Sun Increases Melanoma Risk
WebMD Health News

Feb. 14, 2003 -- You can predict your child's risk of developing melanoma -- just count the number of moles you have on your arms. And researchers have also found that even a moderate amount of sun exposure during childhood -- no sunburn required -- significantly ups the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.


This finding comes as no surprise to dermatologist Ella L. Toombs, MD, a former FDA medical officer. Though sun exposure has been implicated as a major risk in other forms of skin cancer, how it affects melanoma is not well known.


"However, recent research suggests that short bursts of sun exposure -- especially to 'virgin' skin -- may somehow shock the system, making skin even more vulnerable to later melanoma than more constant expsoure," she tells WebMD.


In the current study -- published in the Feb. 1 issue of Cancer -- German researchers studied 1,800 nursery school children and found that several factors seem to increase the number of moles in children as they age -- including amount of sun exposure on a daily basis and during family vacations, skin type and facial freckling, and even the number of moles on their parents' arms.


But moderate sun exposure is closely tied to the appearance of more moles, which may someday develop into melanoma, say the researchers. Melanoma, which occurs when a mole develops into cancer, affects some 51,000 Americans each year and kills nearly 8,000 annually, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.


In their study, the researchers at Ebergard-Karls University say that children who spent at least three weeks on a family vacation in a sunny climate were nearly twice as likely to develop melanoma -- and the risk increased with longer vacation time.


Other factors that increased the risk of melanoma included:


  • Playing outdoors -- Risk increased 1.5 times among children who spent at least two hours playing outside each day.
  • Moles on parents -- Risk increased 1.6 times when the mother had at least 11 moles on her arms or the father had at least six. Risk tripled when mothers had more than 51 moles.
  • Freckles -- Risk tripled in children who had at least 30 freckles on their face.
  • Fair-skinned children -- As seen in previous studies, children who were fair-skinned and had gray, blue, or green eyes had the greatest risk.
  • Sunburn -- Interestingly, having just one sunburn as a child increased the risk of melanoma, but the risk did not increase with additional sunburns.


"That makes sense, based on recent research," says Toombs. "What happens with sun exposure is a process called hardening -- basically, with repeated sun exposure, so much damage has been done that there is no more that can be done. And with melanoma, we think that new exposed skin, like that on the back while at the beach, is subject to greater trauma from massive amount of sun in short bursts than skin that has been chronically exposed."

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