Study Finds Dramatic Rise in Skin Cancer Among Young Adults

Mayo Clinic researchers report skyrocketing rates of skin cancer among young adults, probably because of their persistent use of tanning beds

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As a young adult with porcelain skin — I prefer that term to pale — I get it. Bronzed skin is perpetually “in,” and nobody likes going to the beach only to have to sit under an umbrella and shield their eyes from the glare of their own upper thighs. But a new study from the Mayo Clinic finds an alarming increase in skin cancer among young adults, and the reason may be their persistent efforts to tan.

Published in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the study reports that between the years 1970 and 2009, the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men ages 18 to 39. Although men generally have a higher lifetime risk of melanoma than women, the researchers found the opposite trend to be true among the young adults. “We knew we would see an increase in rates among young women, but we were surprised we saw such a dramatic increase. This seems to be higher than what has been reported previously,” said Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Jerry Brewer in a teleconference.

(MORE: Fake Tans Help Keep Women Out of the Sun)

For the study, researchers used data from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, a decades-long database of patient care in Olmsted County, Minnesota. The researchers looked at first-time melanoma diagnoses for all patients. Based on previous studies on tanning behavior, the authors suggest that the rise of melanoma among young women is linked to their penchant for indoor tanning.

In 2009 the International Agency of Research on Cancer declared tanning beds a human carcinogen, moving them into the top cancer-risk category alongside cigarettes. According to Brewer, tanning beds and cigarettes have the same cancer risk, but teens are ignoring the warnings. He said there is a disconnect in education about the dangers of tanning-bed use that needs to be acknowledged.

“Tanning beds can give you seven times the dose of UV radiation as the sun,” said Brewer, “but young adults are still going.”

(MORE: Why Teens Sunbathe More, Use Sunscreen Less)

It’s important to note that although melanoma rates are on the rise, mortality rates have improved. Researchers credit this to improved early-detection methods and prompt medical procedures.

“People are now more aware of their skin and of the need to see a doctor when they see changes. As a result, many cases can be caught before the cancer advances to a deep melanoma, which is harder to treat,” said Brewer.

Brewer and his fellow researchers support barring the use of tanning booths — especially for teens and young adults, who are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of early and frequent tanning — but they recognize the difficulty of enforcing that. “It’s like trying to ban cigarettes — it’s very hard. Should we be limiting tanning beds? Absolutely. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Many states do have bans, but kids are smart. We say, ‘You need a parent’s signature,’ and the kids write the signature themselves,” said Brewer.

The study group was predominately Caucasian, but the researchers say the findings are valid and applicable to similar U.S. populations of the same age range. “There is currently a melanoma epidemic in the U.S., particularly in young women and middle-aged men. This has been documented by various large population-based studies, with our study confirming that trend in young women,” said Brewer.

(MORE: In Young Tanners, Fear of Wrinkling Is Worse than Cancer)

But if people know what to look for, they can prevent melanoma. It takes only about three minutes to do a skin exam.

“Simply look at your skin,” said Brewer. “This includes getting mirrors and looking at your back and other hard-to-see areas. It takes a bit of education to get young people to start performing this initial first step, but once they do, the simple act of looking over your skin can significantly decrease chances of dying from skin cancer.”

Brewer also recommended educating yourself on the ABCDE’s of melanoma:

A — asymmetry: one side of a mole or dark spot looks different from the other side

B — border: instead of being circular or oval, the mole has a jagged edge

C — color: the mole has more than one color, a dark area, a light area or the colors red, white or blue within it

D — diameter: the mole is larger than 6 mm across, roughly the size of a pencil eraser

E — evolution: any other changes are noted in the mole, even if the change can’t be categorized by A, B, C or D, above. Any itching or bleeding in a mole is also important

MORE: The Misunderstood Psychology of Fake Tanning