Sunburn and Indoor Tanning Still Putting Young People at Risk for Skin Cancer

Half of young adults under age 30 report having had a sunburn in the previous year, and many young white women are still using tanning beds.

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Young adults are risking serious skin damage for some color. Two new government studies report that sunburn is common among young adults and that many young people — especially young white women — aren’t getting the message about the dangers of tanning salons.

In one study, researchers report that 50% of young adults between ages 18 to 29 said they had suffered at least one sunburn in the previous year. This is despite the fact that they also reported increasingly using preventive measures like wearing sunscreen, staying in the shade and wearing long clothing to the ankles. The rate of sunburn was significantly higher among whites (65.6%) than blacks (10.9%).

(MORE: Study Finds Dramatic Rise in Skin Cancer Among Young Adults)

The persistently high rate of sunburn suggests that people are either not using sun-protection measures enough or correctly. Indeed, while using sunscreen was among the most commonly reported preventive methods, adherence remained low overall, with 37.1% of women and 15.6% of men saying they used it. “We were unable to assess correct use of sun protection methods in this study, such as adequate application of sunscreen,” says researcher Dawn Holman, a behavioral scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sunburn, which indicates overexposure, is concerning since it raises the risk of skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S. Each time a person burns, his or her risk of skin cancer goes up. Holman said the research team was unable to analyze the length and frequency of people’s sun exposure or whether burns came from sun exposure or tanning bed use.

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

The second study reports that despite public-health warnings, indoor tanning is still popular with young white women. Overall, in 2010, an estimated 5.6% of U.S. adults reported indoor tanning at least once. But nearly one-third of white women ages 18 to 25 reported using tanning beds — a known cancer risk factor. Indoor tanning is particularly dangerous for young people: indoor tanning before age 35 increases a person’s risk of getting melanoma by 75%.

Even more alarming is the finding that among white adults who used tanning beds, 58% of women and 40% of men said they indoor tanned 10 or more times in the previous year. Overall, women who reported using tanning beds said they had about 20 tanning sessions a year; women between the ages 18 and 21 tanned indoors an average of 28 times. A recent Mayo Clinic study found that rates of melanoma in young adults skyrocketed over the past several decades, likely due to indoor tanning .

“These studies reinforce the need for continued public health efforts to facilitate sun protection, reduce indoor tanning bed use, prevent sunburn and avoid future increases in the burden of skin cancer,” says Holman. “Evidence suggests that clinical counseling to promote skin cancer prevention can increase sun-protective behaviors and decrease indoor tanning.”

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

Skin cancer is not only deadly, but costly too. The researchers report that skin cancer costs an estimated $1.7 billion to treat and $3.8 billion in lost productivity annually. Both reports stress the need for increased public health efforts to help raise awareness of the dangers of overexposure and to create environments and social norms that foster increased sun protection.

To protect yourself from sunburn and an increased risk of skin cancer, Holman recommends the following:

  • Avoid indoor tanning
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher and both UVA and UVB protection
  • Seek shade, especially during midday hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
  • Wear long clothing to protect exposed skin
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses that block as close to 100% of UVA and UVB rays as possible; this protects skin around the eyes from exposure and reduces the risk of cataracts and ocular melanoma

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

Both reports analyzed data from the 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2010 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and are published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.