Whether you’re basking on the beach during vacation, coasting down glittering white snow on a weekend ski trip, or simply walking the dog or running errands, sunlight’s ultraviolet rays can damage your skin year-round. Yet a new study by behavioral researchers shows that most American adults engage in multiple behaviors that boost their risk of skin cancer by increasing their exposure to UV rays.
These behaviors include infrequent use of sun-protective clothing; staying outside in the sun rather than seeking shade; infrequent use of sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more; indoor tanning with a sunlamp or tanning bed within the past year; and getting sunburned within the past year.
Collectively, skin cancer of all types is the most common cancer in the United States and the incidence has increased over the past three decades.
According to the American Cancer Society, during 2007, an estimated 1.1 million Americans received a diagnosis of basal- or squamous-cell skin cancer or the more invasive, potentially lethal melanoma.
Heredity plays an important role in skin cancer. For example, a typical portrait of someone at risk of skin cancer would show a natural blonde or redhead with very fair skin that freckles and burns more easily than it tans. Melanoma, in particular, is known to run in certain families.
However, overexposure to ultraviolet light—something controlled by behavior—is a major factor in increased skin cancer risk.
Researchers found that younger adults were particularly likely to engage in multiple behaviors that increase skin cancer risk.
Men, Caucasians, smokers, persons who consume high levels of alcohol and persons who report having skin that is not especially sensitive to the sun were also more likely to engage in behaviors that placed them at increased skin cancer risk.
Since the UV damage to the skin is cumulative, lack of protection by young people is likely to drive a continued increase in skin cancers as these generations grow older over the next decades, this new research on behavior relating to skin cancer risk may help target the highest-risk groups with educational messages tailored for them.
Ultraviolet radiation exposure is the most important modifiable risk factor for all types of skin cancer.
Wearing protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat, avoiding sun exposure during the middle of the day, when rays are strongest, seeking shade, using sunscreen and avoiding indoor tanning have all been recommended by various agencies, but all available data suggest that the majority of American adults don’t follow this advice and instead have high rates of UV exposure and sunburns.