The upcoming Memorial Day weekend signals the official start of summer — and, with longer days and harsher rays, sunburn season.
We all know the drill: Wear sunscreen when you go outdoors to help prevent wrinkles and skin cancer. The message has been going out for years.
But is anyone listening?
Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer, and its incidence has been rising for the past 30 years, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Basal and squamous cancers, accounting for a million cases a year in the United States, often are easily treatable when detected early.
What really has the experts alarmed is the increase in the deadliest skin cancers, melanomas, particularly in the young. Since 1995, deadly melanoma has been increasing every year by 3.8 percent in white women ages 15 to 34, says the American Cancer Society. It's now the most common form of cancer for young adults ages 25 to 29.
What's going on? Experts blame our tan-worshipping culture for sending young people to tanning beds. The artificial lights deliver a heavier dose of UVA rays than natural light, which can cause deeper damage than UVB rays. Not that UVB isn't hazardous, too.
Dermatologists report that young women who tan under artificial lights are turning up with cosmetic damage such as age spots that used to only be seen in older women.
And with once-rare melanomas appearing in younger people, experts say there's clearly more going on than routine sun exposure.
Despite years of public health messages about the importance of SPF, many people persist in thinking tans are a sign of beauty and health.
"I hear an awful lot of young people saying, 'I just wanted to look good for the prom. It won't bother me to get a tan or go in a tanning bed,' " says H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center surgical oncologist Dr. Vernon Sondak.
He says people with that attitude often become cancer patients.
"They are the ones who end up in their 30s or 40s having a huge chunk of skin cut out," says Sondak.
The World Health Organization has declared tanning beds carcinogenic, citing research showing they increase the risk of melanoma by 75 percent when use starts before age 30.
An estimated 30 million Americans visit indoor tanning salons each year. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates more than 2 million of them are teenagers.
Because of the potential health risks, the Food and Drug Administration is now considering making warning labels on tanning beds more explicit and more visible.
Teens using tanning beds worries experts like Dr. James Spencer, a St. Petersburg dermatologist and American Academy of Dermatology spokesman. He says it's hard to convince a teenager or 20-something that tanning can be dangerous, because it usually takes years for cancer to develop. Still, some cancers can be traced to a single bad sunburn or intense period of tanning.
"The women having melanoma today cooked 10 or 20 years ago," says Spencer.
Spencer is among many skin cancer specialists who put a large part of the blame on the increased popularity of indoor tanning.
"We see indoor tanning going up, we see melanoma going up. We can make an educated guess and just connect the dots," he says.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3416.