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Skin cancer experts worry tanning beds have role in rising rate of melanoma

Many skin cancer experts think tanning beds play a role in rising melanoma rates in young people.

Many skin cancer experts think tanning beds play a role in rising melanoma rates in young people.

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 or (813) 226-3416.

Protect yourself

"The time to prevent skin cancer is years before it appears as a growth or abnormality on the skin," says Dr. Sam Stieglitz, a dermatologist with Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater.

His advice is constant vigilance, with SPF lotions and protective clothing.

"Do it even on a cloudy day whether in the back yard or on the beach. And don't forget sunglasses with UV protection to prevent cataracts and macular degeneration," he says.

Whatever you do, don't be casual about skin cancer. "It causes thousands of deaths each year," he says, "and most of them are preventable."

More tips:

• Buy water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 (meaning that if your skin normally turns red in 10 minutes, then an SPF of 30 used properly could lengthen that time to 300 minutes).

• Be generous: You should use a shot-glass-sized amount of sunscreen over your entire body 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.

• Wear a wide brimmed hat — not a baseball cap — and tightly woven clothing. Look for fabrics treated with SPF products.

• Limit your sun time, and seek shade during the hottest hours of the day.

Spray-on sunscreens are not all created equal, says Consumer Reports Health, which just announced a fresh round of tests on the popular products. The four that got top scores for blocking UVA and UVB rays are:

• Up & Up Sport Continuous SPF 30 (Target)

• Walgreens Sport Continuous SPF 50

• Banana Boat Sport Performance Continuous SPF 30

• Aveeno Continuous Protection SPF 50

For more results, go to www.

Skin cancer experts worry tanning beds have role in rising rate of melanoma 05/26/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 2:32pm]
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