Who could argue against the idea of cheap vacations? The rise of discounted package tours means that it's now possible for people to go on great vacations every year, or even more often than that.

There is a surprising negative to this cheap-package-tour boom: skin cancer.

It almost sounds like it’s supposed to be some sort of Monty Python joke, but it is a deadly serious issue. Take Great Britain as an example. In the 1970s, 600 retirement-age people per year, on average, were diagnosed with serious skin cancer, also known as malignant melanoma. This year, nearly 6,000 cases were recorded for that same demographic. That is a 1,000 percent increase in the past four decades.  

The risk for melanoma has shot upwards for everyone in the U.K., not just the elderly. Among the entire population, 13,000 people are diagnosed annually. For about 2,000 of those, the disease ends up being fatal.

Blaming cheap trips

More than one expert has attributed the spike in skin cancer to the rise in the number of cheap vacation options. Each year, people from Europe’s cool northern latitudes head south to enjoy the sunshine. If you spend any summer time in Portugal’s Algarve, Spain's Costa del Sol, the Greek Islands or Malta you are as likely to hear British accented English or German as you are to hear the local tongue.  

Travel agents pull out all the stops to lure customers. Package tours are very, very cheap, and fares on low-cost airlines are sometimes less expensive than the taxi ride to get to the airport. Virtually everyone can afford to take a summer vacation (or two) every year.

That means more time in the sun for people who spend most of the year bundled up under cloudy skies. And research has shown that getting sunburn just once every two years is enough to greatly increase chances of developing melanoma later in life. Many of Britain's baby boomers have been enjoying package tours almost annually for the past couple of decades, and they're the ones who are suffering the worst from melanoma.

The rise of the tanning bed phenomenon could also be playing a role in the cancer’s surge. Tanning salons have become more prevalent in the U.K., just as they have elsewhere in the non-tropical world.

But it is the prolonged exposure to sunshine — a side effect of beach culture — that is the culprit for most. Men are most likely to develop skin cancer on their backs and women on their legs. For tourists heading to the beach, these parts of the body are covered almost year-round at home, so they are the most prone to burning. And, hypothetically, going on one or two package holidays each summer means one or two sunburns a year. That is more than enough to significantly increase the risk of melanoma over time.

man under beach umbrellaTips to avoid sunburn

The Cancer Research UK organization has offered recommendations to keep people from getting sunburn. Some of the advice that they give doesn’t sound very fun if you are heading to the beach: Wear a shirt during the daytime, stay in the shade all afternoon, and don a wide-brim or “foreign legion style” hat.

What about sunscreen? SPF 15 is well-known as the minimum effective strength, though higher grades are even better. Sunscreens really only work if you slather them on. Cancer Research UK recommends two tablespoons worth of lotion for everyone who is spending time at the beach (and two teaspoons worth for the face, neck and arms even if you keep a T-shirt on).

Skin cancer is not just a problem in the U.K. Other countries with many vacationers also suffer from the problem. The U.S. and Germany both have rather high instances of melanoma, as does France. 

In Australia, a country that is known for its beach culture, skin cancer has become a huge problem. Many people Down Under don’t just spend a weekend or two at the beach every year, they spend every summer weekend in the sun on the sand.

Back in the U.K., package tours aren’t going anywhere. Thanks to the falling value of the euro versus the pound and economic woes in popular southern destinations, vacations will be even more affordable in the future. It seems like the best way to combat the disease is to convince travelers to keep their shirts on and to slather SPF 50 every time they head to the beach rather than advising them to stay home or stay in the shade.

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