Wrinkle Fears May Help Prevent Skin Cancer

Young people responded to photos showing sun-linked skin aging, researchers note

TUESDAY, March 22, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- When grim cancer warnings fail, researchers say showing young people photographic evidence of sun-linked skin damage motivates many to better protect their skin.

California college students handed special UV photos that revealed underlying skin damage linked to their sun exposure were more likely to slather on sunblock at the beach later on, according to a University of California, San Diego, study.

"Any efforts to educate the public to the dangers of sunburn can be very helpful as evidenced by the extensive campaigns in Australia, where sun protection is now integrated into daily life and recreation," said Dr. Jeffrey Salomon, an assistant clinical professor of plastic surgery at Yale University School of Medicine.

Salomon, who was not involved in the study, called cancer-causing sunburn "an occupational hazard of life on this earth, a hazard we can successful reduce."

Overexposure to the sun is causing an epidemic of skin cancer, although most cases can be prevented. The number of new skin cancers -- including deadly melanoma -- is increasing faster than any other type of malignancy, experts say.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, hypothesized that young adults are likely to be more interested in the supposed appearance-enhancing benefits of tanning than in the possibility getting skin cancer in the future.

In their study, a team led by UCSD project scientist Heike I. M. Mahler enrolled 146 college students -- 114 women and 32 men -- in a study they called "Health Attitudes." To start, the participants completed a questionnaire that reported their sunbathing and sun protection practices.

Then 95 of the students had two photos taken of their faces. One photo was taken under normal light and the other with a special ultraviolet (UV) filter.

The UV photo revealed underlying skin damage caused by chronic exposure to UV rays that can cause wrinkles and age spots.

These 95 participants also received information on the aging effects of the sun and other risks of UV exposure. Some of these students were also given a sample of a sunless tanning lotion.

All the students filled out a second questionnaire focused on their intended changes in sunbathing and sun-protection behavior.

A month later, the researchers contacted the students by phone to see what changes in sunbathing and sun exposure they had made, according to their report in the March issue of the Archives of Dermatology.

While none of the groups reduced their actual time spent in the sun, "the intervention significantly increased use of sun protection during incidental sun exposure," and 37 percent of those receiving the sunless tanner said they used it.

The intervention may also have had a "ripple effect," in terms of spreading the word about sun-linked skin damage. Sixty-one percent of all students involved in the study said they had told a friend or family member about what they had learned about UV damage and sun protection, and those who had received photos of underlying skin damage spoke to many more friends and family about what they had learned, the researchers added.

"Assuming that future work confirms the efficacy of the intervention using more objective indicators of behavior, this appearance-based intervention can have important practical applications," the researchers concluded. "Ultraviolet instant cameras are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and simple to operate."

"There is an epidemic of skin cancer in this country directly attributable to exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun," Salomon said. "Over half of all cancers in this country are skin cancers, and the incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, has been increasing. The major risk factor for developing skin cancer is sustaining sunburns."

Salomon noted there is research into medications that can be applied after prolonged sun exposure, but these medications have not been shown to actually prevent skin cancer.

Direct exposure to the sun is not the only cause of skin cancer. In light of this, the World Health Organization (WHO) has just recommended that nobody under 18 use a tanning bed. According to WHO, recent studies have shown a direct link between the use of tanning beds and cancer.

"There has been mounting concern over the past several years that people and, in particular, teenagers are using sun beds excessively to acquire tans which are seen as socially desirable," Dr. Kerstin Leitner, WHO assistant director-general, said recently in a statement.

"However, the consequence of this sun bed usage has been a precipitous rise in the number of skin cancer cases," added Leitner, who is responsible for environmental health at WHO. "We are therefore calling attention to this fact, and we would hope that this recommendation will inspire regulatory authorities to adopt stricter controls on the usage of sun beds."

Whatever the source of the UV radiation, it is especially important to reduce exposure during childhood and adolescence to decrease the lifelong risk of developing skin cancer, Salomon said.

"Unfortunately, adolescence is associated with increased unprotected sun exposure with most youths reporting a history of having had sunburn, which equates to an increased risk of developing skin cancer in their lifetime. UV radiation from any source during those years is cumulative and risky," he stressed.

More information

The American Cancer Society can tell you more about skin cancer.

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