Many young Americans risk skin cancer from annual sunburns

The annual sunburn is still a tradition for many Americans, with nearly 60 percent of young adults reporting at least one sunburn in the past year, according to a new study.

Sun damage is the leading preventable cause of both the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, and of the most common forms, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, occurring in more than 1 million Americans annually. Sunburn represents severe skin damage and has been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer.

In fact, states that had high rates of sunburn in this study correlated with high rates of melanoma deaths based on data gathered by the National Cancer Institute, says Mona Saraiya, M.D., M.P.H., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reporting in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on data from a national survey with more than 150,000 respondents, the researchers found that 31.7 percent of Americans had been sunburned within the previous 12 months.

At 44 percent, white men were the most likely to have had at least one sunburn over the past 12 months. About 40 percent of these men reported three or more sunburns during that time. Black men and women had the lowest rates of sunburn, with about 5 percent reporting a sunburn during the past year.

There was a strong relationship between age and sunburns. While 7 percent of adults 65 and older reported being sunburned, 57.5 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 had been sunburned at least once in 12 months.

These findings complement those of a recently published study that showed that sunburn rates among teenagers, 12 to 18 years old, might go as high as 80 percent.

The researchers also identified higher rates of sunburn among people with higher education, higher income and having more children, all signs of Americans with greater affluence and possibly more leisure time in which to get sunburned.

“Such high sunburn rates for a one-year period confirm reports that extensive unprotected sun exposure is occurring among young adults,” the researchers say. This early exposure is especially of concern when considering the long latency period between sun damage and the development of skin cancer.

The researchers also found substantial differences in whites’ average sunburn rates among states. Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, the District of Columbia, Wyoming, Utah and Wisconsin were at the top of the list with rates ranging from 46 percent to 50 percent. The lowest rates were seen in Puerto Rico, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, New York and Florida, ranging from about 14 percent to 29 percent.

“We found a higher rate of sunburn among white adults living in the Midwest, possibly a reflection of a population that is more sun-sensitive or less likely to practice sun-safe behaviors,” says Saraiya.

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Mary Kay Sones EurekAlert

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