Americans aware of sun dangers, but ignore warnings

June 1, 2012

According to the National Cancer Institute, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and its prevalence keeps growing. And despite an abundance of initiatives designed to increase sun protection and early detection, people don't seem to be acting on what they know.

Key Points

For young men, those rates increased fourfold (Reed KB, Brewer JD, Lohse CM, et al. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012;87(4):328-334).

Richard Buckley, M.D., a dermatologist in Milford, Pa., says he thinks his patients are aware of the cause-and-effect relationship between sun exposure and skin damage. "Having said that, I see people who know better continuing to go to tanning booths. I see people who know better, getting up and walking outside ... who haven't put any kind of sun protection on," he says.

There are across-the-board increases in melanoma rates. The average annual percent change from 1999 to 2008 in melanoma incidence is a 2.1 increase for men and 2.3 increase for women, according to the American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts and Figures 2012.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers (NMSC) are also on the rise. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, treatment of NMSCs increased by nearly 77 percent between 1992 and 2006. The number of women younger than 40 diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma (BCC) has more than doubled in the last 30 years. And, startlingly, the incidence of squamous cell carcinoma among women under age 40 has increased almost 700 percent.

Older people are not immune to these disturbing trends: The number of NMSCs in the Medicare population went up an average of 4.2 percent every year between 1992 and 2006, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

The good news, Dr. Brewer says, is death from melanoma is on the decline among young men and women, dropping 9 percent in men and 8 percent in women during the study period.

Older men aren't so lucky, Dr. Rigel says.

"Mortality is rising primarily in older men. Men are less likely to seek early detection. (Another problem) with men is the most common place for melanoma (in men) is on the back," he says.