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Teens and Sun: An Unhealthy Love Affair

As summer approaches, experts urge kids to avoid dangerous overexposure

FRIDAY, May 28, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Across the country, millions of teens are counting down the minutes to summer vacation, eager to get to the beach, the river or just the backyard to soak up some rays.

What they don't often realize -- and don't want to hear -- is they're setting the stage for wrinkles and early skin cancer, maybe even life-threatening skin cancer, if they don't protect themselves from the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

Sun protection isn't a strong suit among America's teens, a new report from the American Cancer Society shows. Experts fear the skin cancer epidemic, already exploding, will become even worse in the next few decades.

"Any overexposure to UV radiation during the teen period can set the stage for skin cancer later in life, compared to someone who didn't get much exposure," said Vilma Cokkinides, program director of risk factor surveillance for the cancer society.

"We haven't done well in communicating that message to kids," she added.

How bad are teens' sun habits? Dismal, according to findings in the cancer society's May 24 report, Cancer Prevention & Early Detection Facts & Figures 2004, which included many recently published studies.

Nearly three-quarters of young people reported getting sunburns during the summer months. Of those, more than one-third reported using a sunscreen with SPF of 15 or higher when they burned -- underscoring the need to educate youth about reapplication intervals.

Ten percent of children aged 11 to 18 said they had used tanning sunlamps in the past year. If their parents also did, that rate rose to 29.5 percent.

Another study found less than one-third of youth aged 11 to 18 used any sun protection, such as hats, long pants or sunscreen.

More than 1 million cases of basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most serious kind of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, is expected to be diagnosed in 55,100 Americans in 2004. For young adults aged 25 to 29, melanoma is the most common cancer, according to the CDC.

Most likely to fall into the sun-worshipper category, said Cokkinides, are those youth who think their skin is more likely to tan and less likely to burn.

"What they need to understand, and probably what we haven't done well with in health messages, is the concern about overexposure to the sun," she said. "We are seeing skin cancers at younger and younger ages."

The lack of sun-protection habits among young people is "ubiquitous," said Dr. David Goldberg, a dermatologist and vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit educational group.

"They are not getting the message [about sun hazards], and I think the reason they are not getting it is the message is not being delivered correctly," he said.

"Kids are being told if you get too much sun you get skin cancer. That's too far down the line [to have an impact]," Goldberg said.

In his offices, Goldberg and his staff take a different approach. "If you get sunburned," he tells young patients, "it hurts, and it's painful and you don't want pain. Get too much sun, and you'll look like old people."

"Cancer to them is an elusive thing that only old people get," Goldberg added. "We focus on the pain issue and/or on the looking ugly issues."

Schools have been slow to join the effort, Cokkinides and Goldberg agreed. Policies for sun safety do not exist in most elementary, junior high/middle or high schools, according to a government survey.

Such policies work, said Cokkinides, and might include providing adequate outside shade in play areas or coaches handing out sunscreen.

The Skin Cancer Foundation is launching an awareness program in schools, Goldberg said, teaching kids to look for moles and to avoid the damaging effects of the sun, among other measures.

Goldberg does approve of "fake tans" -- those self-tanners applied by teens at home or sprayed on at salons. "Now, the fake tans look great," he said, compared to those of years past that tended to turn the skin orange. "And they won't harm your skin. The major ingredient, dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is a colorless sugar that stains the skin darker."

Cokkinides urges parents, even those of headstrong teens, not to abandon the warning about ultraviolet radiation dangers. Keep telling the kids to wear sunscreen and to follow other habits such as wearing hats and long-sleeved clothing, she said. Remind them to reapply sunscreen every two hours or after sweating or swimming.

More information

To learn more about skin cancer, visit the American Cancer Society and the Skin Cancer Foundation.

SOURCES: Vilma Cokkinides, Ph.D., epidemiologist and director, Risk Factor Surveillance, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; David Goldberg, M.D., dermatologist and vice president, Skin Cancer Foundation, New York City
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