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Young Adults' Sunburns Raise Cancer Risk

Midwestern States Show Greatest Risk
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

July 16, 2002 -- Despite all the skin cancer warnings, teens are still worshipping the sun -- without adequate sunscreen.

More than half of young adults between ages 18 and 29 report having at least one sunburn in the past year, a new study from the CDC shows.

In fact, states that have high rates of sunburn also have high rates of melanoma deaths, says Mona Saraiya, MD, MPH, an epidemiologist with the CDC.

At the top of the list were Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, the District of Columbia, Wyoming, Utah, and Wisconsin. Those states with lowest sunburn rates were Puerto Rico, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, New York, and Florida.

Saraiya's report, which summarizes data from the NCI, appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this month.

The NCI's national survey involved more than 150,000 Americans; 32% said they had been sunburned within the previous 12 months.

At 44%, white men were the most likely racial group to have had at least one sunburn over the past 12 months; about 40% of these men had three more sunburns during that time.

In the 18-to-29 age bracket, 57% of respondents reported being sunburned at least once in the past year -- the highest of all age groups. Those with higher education, higher income, and more children -- all signs of affluence and possibly more leisure time to get sunburned -- had higher sunburn rates.

This parallels another study, which showed sunburn rate to be highest among teenagers from 12 to 18 years old -- as high as 80%.

Saraiya speculates that those living in non-Sunbelt states -- where annual UV radiation is lower -- may not take precautions during the first days of burning sun exposure. Also, many people believe that an initial burn is necessary before tanning begins.

It's the UV rays that cause skin cancer, not the tan, explains Martin Weinstock, chief of dermatology at the VA Medical Center at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He is also chairman of the American Cancer Society's skin cancer advisory group.

"Ultraviolet radiation that hits the skin causes a reaction in the melanocytes, pigment-producing skin cells, to produce a browner color in the skin," he says. "The same ultraviolet radiation causes damage in the DNA of skin cells ... and that has been related to skin cancer."

Artificial self-tanners, tan in a bottle, and so-called "mystic" spray-on tans provide a safe tan in the sense that they don't involve exposure to UV radiation, he says.

People should check regularly for moles that may be cancerous, advises Allan C. Halpern, MD, chief of dermatology services at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, in a news statement.

Check all of your skin regularly, including scalp, genitalia, and between the toes, Halpern says. "Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the surface of the skin, even though it is more common in sun-exposed areas," he says.

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