The rate of melanoma cases has doubled in the past 30 years, giving a whole new meaning to a killer tan
Sure, you love the way the sun feels on your skin—but if we're being honest, you’re just ignoring the damage we’re all too well aware tanning does. The rate of melanoma cases in the U.S. has doubled in the last three decades, a number that will continue to rise if preventative efforts aren’t made, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Luckily, public health experts are calling for just that: In a paper published in JAMA, specialists from Georgetown University pushed for the government to start implementing restrictions on tanning beds. “Regulating the age that someone could use a tanning bed would play a big role in minimizing skin cancer risk,” says Lance Brown, M.D., a New York-based board certified dermatologist. “Younger people, like teenagers, don’t understand the consequences of tanning and skin cancer, and that the damage they’re doing now can affect them later as well.” In fact, melanoma is among the most commonly diagnosed cancers in young women ages 15 to 39.
But adults who certainly know better still yearn to spend more time in the sun, despite the well-proven connection between skin cancer and tanning—both inside and out. So why do we still do it?
Some people are actually genetically programmed to crave the sun on their skin. There’s a certain gene variation that causes certain people to crave rays the way drug addicts crave their poison, reports a study from the Yale School of Public Health.
For most of us, though, the reasoning is vain and simple: “People like the way a tan looks and don’t understand how it could lead to skin cancer,” Brown says. (Plus, there's all those addictive mood boosts. See: Your Brain On: Sunlight.) And despite our wishful thinking, there’s no such thing as a safe tan, Brown says. Tanning beds are worse, but exposure to natural rays still increases your cancer risk, he says.
Time in the sun does load your body with the incredibly important vitamin D—but it only takes 15 minutes of shine to help your body produce a sufficient supply, experts say.
There’s also a common misconception that sunburns are what cause skin cancer, Brown adds. They certainly don’t help—just five sunburns over your life increases your cancer risk by 80 percent, according to a study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. But there is no support to the idea that if you spend time in the sun but don’t burn you won’t get cancer, Brown adds.
As for sunscreen, you should definitely put it on. But don’t think you’re free to stay in the sun all afternoon. “Sunscreen doesn’t protect you from skin cancer. It prevents you from getting a bad burn that can lead to cancer later in life,” he says.
Brown’s advice: Enjoy the beautiful day, but sit in the shade as much as possible. If you’re at the beach, the higher the SPF you’re slathering on, the better (use at least 30!). And if you’re out all afternoon, you should be reapplying often enough to use a full bottle of sunscreen by sundown, he advises. (Try one of The Best Sun Protection Products of 2014.)
There are genetic factors that play a significant role in developing melanoma, Brown says. But the sun is one of the other biggest factors—and since you can actually control this one, better to be pale than sorry.