A new report out of the U.K. reveals some pretty scary statistics; skin cancer has been on a significant upward trajectory for the past 30 years. The American Cancer Society conveys similar information on its site: "Cancer of the skin is by far the most common of all cancers. Melanoma accounts for less than 2 percent of skin cancer cases but causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths."
Not only are skin cancers on the rise, but it seems that nobody knows exactly why, especially since sunscreen use, which is supposed to protect skin, has also increased significantly over the last 30 years. There is greater education about the dangers of skin cancer, risk factors, and people spend less time in the sun than ever. Yet, skin cancer rates continue to climb (although, thankfully, it is also the most curable cancer).
So given that there's sunscreen in beauty products and fewer of us work outside than ever, what's causing the rising rates? Of course, there are some theories:
It's the sun: It's easier than ever to take vacations from northern latitudes to equatorial regions where the sun is more powerful, and people spend more time inside than ever, leading to far more serious burns — when they are exposed to sun — that can alter skin cell DNA. UVA and UVB rays have both been linked to skin cancers, and melanomas are more commonly found on body parts that don't see consistent sun exposure (the torso and the legs) as opposed to, say, arms and faces. When skin doesn't have a chance to build up naturally protective melanin, cancers increase.
It's tanning beds: Artificial tanning continues to be popular and has been linked to skin cancer, especially for those who used them at younger ages (the World Health Organization advises against sunbed use for those under 18).
It's our skin care products: Chemical-filled skin and hair products might make the skin more vulnerable to cancers due to some heretofore unknown effects on skin cells. (Using natural products with ingredients lists you can read and recognize is a good way to avoid that potential issue.)
It's the sunscreen: Some have suggested that sunscreen ingredients themselves have driven skin-cancer rates up, but that was based on a simple correlation — people who use more sunscreens tend to have more skin cancers, but a true causative link between the two hasn't been proven. (It could be that people who use sunscreen more spend more time outside, or that sunscreen users end up not getting enough vitamin D, which can increase skin cancer risk). One meta-analysis of studies showed no link between increased skin cancers and sunscreen use, while another one did, and others are inconclusive. Sunscreen prevents burns and wrinkles, for sure.
It's some other environmental pollutant: Some experts think that skin cancer is exacerbated by other environmental pollutants.
Yes, the information above is confusing and contradictory. That's because health professionals are still figuring it out and research is ongoing. If you have one or more of the risk factors for skin cancer, being aware of changes in your skin is key (see a dermatologist if you notice changes in shape and color of moles especially). If you do use sunscreens, ensure that they offer UVA and UVB protection (covering up is another way to block the sun's rays), that they are fresh (old sunscreens lose potency) and make sure that you aren't spending more time in the sun just because you are wearing sunscreen and feel 'safe.'
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