Today the threat of skin cancer does not usually cross young peoples’ minds when they grab their towels and skip the sunscreen to lie out in the sun to get bronze skin. It is normal and very common to bring up in conversation one’s tan, and it is a compliment to hear, “Wow, you look so dark!” As a college student, I know that a nice tan is an expectation of young people during the summer months.
The media and pop culture often glamorize tan skin, encouraging young people to attain a luminous glow. However, skin cancer is a very real danger to my generation. The most aggressive form of skin cancer is melanoma. It develops when skin cells are damaged and mutate, which causes rapid skin cell growth. It is usually pigmented (typically brown or black) and can be seen on the skin. It is estimated that in 2013, 76,690 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed. Melanoma is also the most common form of cancer in young adults ages 25-29.
Risk factors for melanoma include ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can come from the sun’s UV rays or indoor tanning machines – these emit UV radiation as damaging or sometimes even more than the sun’s rays. Sunburns caused by excessive sun can also lead to melanoma. For these two reasons it is crucial to stay in the shade on sunny days or if you must be in the sun, routinely use and reapply sunscreen or wear protective clothing. It is recommended that you use a “broad spectrum” (blocks UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen that is at least 15 SPF. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and after sweating or swimming, even if the bottle says “waterproof” or “sweat resistant.”
Young people also need to take into account their own skin and family history of melanoma. People with fairer skin, freckles and light hair and eye color should be especially cautious – all of these are signs of increased risk for skin cancer. Melanoma is often found in moles so be aware of any moles that you have and any new ones that develop. It is a good habit to check your skin about once a month for any changes.
So although it is tempting to bathe in the sun all day unprotected, and brag about that burn that will soon “turn into a tan,” it is important to think twice about the damaging effects it has on your skin. As UV Safety Month comes up in July, be sure to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays and routinely do self-checks or have a dermatologist look at your moles. If you really want that summer glow, self-tanning lotions provide color without the danger. Keeping your skin safe and healthy will be worth it in the long run, while a tan will eventually fade.
To learn more about melanoma, download our Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Melanoma guide. This booklet provides insight into managing a melanoma diagnosis, making treatment decisions and coping with the emotional and practical obstacles people face after being diagnosed with the disease.
Shanna is an education intern at the Cancer Support Community and a rising junior at The George Washington University, where she is studying international affairs and political science and has a strong interest in public health.