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Skin cancer rates skyrocket; indoor tanning blamed for 400,000 cases annually

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Nearly five million Americans are treated for skin cancer each year. Melanoma, the deadliest form, kills 9,000 annually, according to a report released yesterday by the Department of Health and Human Services. Indoor tanning devices are responsible for 400,000 skin cancer diagnoses each year. The number of melanoma cases has increased 200 percent between 1973 and 2011. Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak has issued a Call to Action proclaiming the increase in skin cancer rates a major public health problem that costs an annual average of $8.1 billion to treat.

Despite being one of the most preventable forms of cancer, the number of skin cancer cases reported over the past 30 years is equal to the number of all other cancer cases combined. It is the most common cancer found in young adults and teens. According to the Surgeon General, the majority of skin cancer cases are caused by exposure to the Sun’s UV rays. A combination of excessive, unprotected exposure to the sun and use of tanning beds and booths are to blame. Nearly one-third of white women between the ages of 16 and 25 engage in indoor tanning.

“Tanned skin is damaged skin, and we need to shatter the myth that tanned skin is a sign of health,” — Acting Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak, M.D., M.P.H.

Lushniak, speaking this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said that he does not want to discourage people from going outside. As the Surgeon General, he wants to encourage people to get outside and be active for better health. However, it is important to protect skin from damaging UV rays. He recommends wearing sunglasses, wide-brim hats and applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen. It is important, he notes, to use enough sunscreen, at least one ounce (two tablespoons), to cover all exposed skin. Sunscreen must be reapplied often. He also suggests seeking shade.

The Surgeon General’s report recognizes that current social norms see tanned skin as a sign of health, and is considered attractive. Popular media reinforces the message. This poses a barrier to changing habits in the country to prevent skin cancer. Some organizations have promoted spray-on tans as an option, but there exists harmful health effects with this as well. DHA, a common ingredient in sunless tanning products, has been FDA approved for use in cosmetics, but is not safe when inhaled, as happens when sprayed. Sunless tanning lotions are a safe alternative to sprays and tanning booths.

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