Sun safety message is failing

October 1, 2005

Despite continued efforts by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and others, a recent survey shows sunscreen use appears to be declining. Meanwhile, the incidence of melanoma continues to increase, while sources say skin cancer is afflicting ever-younger patients.

Despite continued efforts by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and others, a recent survey shows sunscreen use appears to be declining. Meanwhile, the incidence of melanoma continues to increase, while sources say skin cancer is afflicting ever-younger patients.

According to the Sun Safety Alliance, the percentage of Americans who report using sunscreen when outdoors slipped from 72% to 60% during the past year.

The AAD's 2005 Skin Cancer Survey likewise reveals that 52% of teenagers say they're not too careful or not at all careful to protect their skin from sun exposure. A separate but related survey also found that 83% of adults with children or grandchildren younger than 12 years protect these children from sun exposure, while only 68% of these adults report taking similar precautions.

According to the American Cancer Society, doctors will diagnose an estimated 105,750 new melanoma cases in 2005, a 10% increase over 2004.

Darrell S. Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology, New York University, and past AAD president, says, "When I give lectures, I ask if people are seeing more melanomas than they did five or 10 years ago. Uniformly, the answer is 'yes.' So despite everything we're doing, we're losing ground."

Full impact

This shift's full impact might not emerge for decades. Today's melanomas represent results of behavior 10 or 20 years ago, Dr. Rigel explains.

"What's more worrisome is that with the trend swinging toward less sun protection, it means that 10 or 20 years from now, we will continue to see increases," he says.

To reverse this cycle, experts agree that it's crucial to reach the average American long before he or she arrives at a dermatologist's office.

"We see the handwriting on the wall when we see a child and mother who are extraordinarily tanned sitting together in the office," adds Joel Schlessinger, MD, an Omaha-based solo private practitioner who is board-certified in dermatology and general cosmetic surgery. "We also see the writing on the wall when we see a child who is a lifeguard during the summer, with parents who just roll their eyes when we say, 'this is going to harm them in the future.' The message needs to be sent out loud and clear that this is the equivalent of letting one's child smoke at a young age."

Ignoring message

Americans often ignore dermatologists' warnings for a variety of reasons, experts say.

"When one does surveys," Dr. Rigel says, "people agree with the fact that one in five Americans are going to get a skin cancer some time during their life. The problem is, none of them think that they'll be the one."

Additionally, Dr. Rigel says, "There's been a lot of press and a variety of other messages from the tanning industry, which has a very active media machine. They're telling people sun in moderation is good for you. There's no data to support that. But when people hear dermatologists saying, 'protect yourself from the sun,' and the tanning people saying sun is OK, they think, 'Who knows who's right? I'm going to do what I want.' "