Staying Sun Safe: Confessions of a Former Tanner

Sandra A. Fryhofer, MD


May 03, 2011

In This Article

Skin Cancer Stats

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in adults in the United States, affecting 1 in 5 Americans. Skin cancer statistics from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) say that more than 2 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer (squamous cell and basal cell) are diagnosed each year.[3]

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer, with squamous cell carcinoma coming in second. Melanoma remains the most deadly, however.[4,5]

Although melanoma accounts for less than 5% of all skin cancer,[1] it is to blame for about 75% of all skin cancer deaths.[3] The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that more than 68,000 melanomas were diagnosed in 2010: 39,000 in men and 29,000 in women. The ACS calculates that 1 American dies every hour from melanoma, including an estimated 9000 deaths in 2010.[6]

Melanoma is a leading cause of cancer for young adults in their 20s. It is the number 2 most common cancer for young women, and the number 3 most common cancer for young men.[1] The last 30 years have seen a rise in cases of melanoma, with the most rapid increases in young white women and older white men. A recent study in the Archives of Dermatology[7] highlights this concerning trend. Researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California looked at melanoma data for young women age 15 to 39 and found melanoma rates in the wealthiest neighborhoods to be 6 times greater than those in poorest neighborhoods. The amount of UV exposure was also a factor. Other studies have also found melanoma rates to be highest in people of higher socioeconomic status, one explanation being that wealthier patients can afford more leisure and vacation time, with more sun and UV light exposure.

A main contributing factor for all skin cancers is UV radiation exposure from the sun and from artificial sources, including sunlamps and tanning beds.[8] UV light exposure causes DNA damage and suppresses the immune system, which can also promote cancer.[1]

There Is No Safe UV

UV radiation from the sun comes in 2 basic forms: UVA (95%), with wave lengths from 320 to 400 nm, and UVB (5%), with wave lengths from 290 to 320 nm.[1] Dermatologists refer to UVA as "aging" rays and UVB as "burning" rays; however, both can lead to skin cancer. UVB rays are blocked by window glass; UVA rays are not. Tanning beds and sun lamps mainly emit UVA radiation.[9,10] The UV radiation intensity from tanning beds can be 10 to 15 times stronger than sitting in the sun in the middle of the day.[1] An estimated 30 million Americans visit tanning salons each year. A recent study shows that the number of tanning salons exceeds the number of Starbucks® or McDonald's®.[10,11]


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