That's the message at the heart of new guidelines by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) that call for pediatricians and primary care doctors to discuss sun safety and skin cancer prevention with fair-skinned children, adolescents, and young adults.
The guidelines update the group's 2003 recommendations, which stated that there was not enough evidence to warrant such counseling for any age group.
After reviewing all studies published since that time, the task force states that there seems to be some benefit to counseling fair-skinned people in the 10- to 24-year-old group on how to limit exposure to the sun's harmful rays.
The message is also best served when it focuses on how the sun's ultraviolet rays can affect appearance, as opposed to skin cancer risk. Sun exposure causes premature aging and wrinkles.
The group says that there is still not enough data to determine whether it makes sense to counsel people aged 24 and older about how they can minimize their risk of developing skin cancer.
"It appears that the important age range is young and this is, in part, because that is where the data is," says USPSTF panel chair Virginia A. Moyer, MD, MPH. She is a professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
"Ten- to 12-year-old children are very aware of how they look and most of the counseling methods that work are appearance based," she says.
"If you tell a teenager that she needs to wear a long-sleeved shirt on a hot day because she may get cancer in the future, it doesn't resonate as much as if you tell them they will develop wrinkles and start to look older than they are," Moyer says.
This approach can change risky behaviors. In one study of young adults, appearance-based prevention education reduced indoor tanning by 35%.
The bottom line is appearance trumps cancer prevention in this age group, she says.
Overall, traditional prevention messages that focus on skin cancer risk as well as those that focus on appearance do make a difference. These messages can easily be folded into visits with primary care doctors along with other important prevention topics.
Computer-based education programs, booklets, and/or peer-to-peer counseling can all help doctors get their message across.
"Counseling in the primary care office can make a difference," Moyer tells WebMD. "You have got to use time for what is effective and this is effective and doable in primary care. You can do it in the office, make a difference and not use up all of your time. That is exciting."