As a nation, general wisdom is that a tan makes us look happy, healthy and attractive. But apparently, we have forgotten about the deadly risks of melanoma skin cancer.
A study published in JAMA Dermatology shows that melanoma deaths and incident rates have climbed nationwide during a recent 10-year span (2003 to 2013). One bright spot in an otherwise gloomy report: the Northeast, in general, saw a decline in melanoma death rates.
According to the research, conducted by researchers from the Denver VA Medical Center, University of Colorado and University of Central Florida, “The Northeast, especially New England, is the only U.S. geographic region in which most states experienced a reduction in both death and incidence rates. Strong skin cancer prevention programs likely played a role in this region’s success.”
The authors credited programs created by the Melanoma Foundation of New England, a non-profit founded in 1999, for the lower numbers. “Recently, the foundation launched the Practice Safe Skin initiative, which funded sunscreen dispensers in public and recreational areas throughout Boston and expanded to include other New England cities. Such programs may enhance public awareness about skin cancer and may suppress the continual rise in melanoma.”
In the U.S., about 9,000 people die of melanoma annually, and the rate of death is rising faster than any other type of cancer, according to the research.
Per capita, the highest melanoma rates were in South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana and West Virginia.
Some people may feel like there has been conflicting research about sun exposure as of late. Recent research, for example, has pointed out the health benefits of Vitamin D, which is obtained naturally by exposure to the sun. Vitamin D can help women beat breast cancer, slow the progression of HIV, reduce rates of depression, and even improve gut health, studies have shown.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use sunscreen, which the CDC recommends to prevent melanoma. “Sunscreen prevents sunburn by blocking UVB light,” according to Harvard Medical School. “Theoretically, that means sunscreen use lowers vitamin D levels. But as a practical matter, very few people put on enough sunscreen to block all UVB light, or they use sunscreen irregularly, so sunscreen’s effects on vitamin D might not be that important. An Australian study that’s often cited showed no difference in vitamin D between adults randomly assigned to use sunscreen one summer and those assigned a placebo cream.”
Spikes in the popularity of indoor tanning also could be driving melanoma rates. Also published in a research letter in JAMA Dermatology, this phenomenon is addressed in terms of a study that looked at skin cancer risk among diverse youth. “Results highlight the need to incorporate sex, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity when developing skin cancer prevention programs for youth,” reported the author, Aaron J. Blashill, from the psychology department at San Diego State University. “For example, black sexual minority males reported the highest prevalence of indoor tanning, a rate equivalent if not higher than white females. Clinicians working with sexual minority males, particularly males of color, should consider assessing use of indoor tanning during routine evaluation.”
Another recent study even showed a connection between teen tanning and drug abuse.