Young Adults Raise Skin Cancer Risk with Sunburns, Indoor Tanning

(Image credit: Poolside sunbathing via Shutterstock)

Young adults are doing things that dangerously increase their risk of skin cancer, according to new reports for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2010, half of all adults ages 18 to 29, and 65 percent of white people in this age group, reported that they were sunburned at least once in the past year, the report said.

In addition, about a third of white women reported using indoor tanning in the past year.

Both sunburn and indoor tanning increase the risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Indoor tanning before age 35 increases melanoma risk by 75 percent, the CDC says.

While efforts to reduce indoor tanning have traditionally focused on adolescents, "This study suggests that as adolescents mature into young adults, they may continue to need environmental support to develop and maintain healthy behaviors and to change their perspectives about tanning," study researcher Anne Hartman, of the National Cancer Institute, said in a statement.

In one study, CDC researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of about 5,000 adults ages 18 to 29 about their sun-protection behaviors and sunburn in the past year.

They found that while use of certain sun-protective behaviors, such as wearing clothing to the ankles and staying in the shade, increased between 2000 and 2010, the prevalence of sunburn remained about the same (about 50 percent). The researchers do not know whether sun-protective methods were used properly (for instance, whether a sufficient amount of sunscreen was applied.)

The majority of young adults did not adequately protect themselves from the sun. For instance, in 2010, 37 percent of women and 15 percent of men reported using sunscreen always or most of the time. Just 3.8 percent of women and 6.7 percent of men reported wearing a wide-brimmed hat. (Wide-brimmed hats provide full sun protection to the face, ears and neck, while baseball caps and sun visors do not provide sufficient protection, the CDC says.)

A second study surveyed about 25,200 adults ages 18 and over about their indoor tanning. Overall, 5.6 percent of adults said they had used indoor tanning in the past year. The highest prevalence was among white women ages 18 to 21, at 31.8 percent. In the Midwest, 44 percent of white women in this age group reported using indoor tanning.

Of those who used indoor tanning, about 58 percent of women and 40 percent of men reported tanning at least 10 times in the past year.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently recommended children and young adults ages 10 to 24 receive counseling from their primary care doctor on ways to reduce their skin cancer risk.

"More public health efforts, including providing shade and sunscreen in recreational settings, are needed to raise awareness of the importance of sun protection and sunburn prevention to reduce the burden of skin cancer," Dr. Marcus Plescia, director of CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, said in a statement. "We must accelerate our efforts to educate young adults about the dangers of indoor tanning to prevent melanoma as this generation ages," Plescia said.

The new CDC reports will be published tomorrow (May 11) the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 

Pass it on:  More needs to be done to prevent skin cancer among Americans, particularly young adults.

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Live Science Staff
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