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Three quarters of young UK adults risk skin cancer by seeking suntan

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7443.786-b (Published 01 April 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:786
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    Nearly three quarters of young adults in the United Kingdom are increasing their risk of skin cancer by wanting to be suntanned, a survey reported this week.

    The survey of more than 1800 adults aged over 16 showed that the younger age group (16 to 24 year olds) were more likely to want to get a sun tan than older people. Nearly half of the whole group surveyed liked or aimed to get a sun tan when they went on holiday, but this increased to 71% of 16 to 24 year olds. Fewer than one in 10 (8%) of this age group avoided getting a tan. Further research showed that older teenagers and young adults holidaying abroad independently for the first time were the most likely to use inadequate protection from the sun. Young women were the most likely to seek a suntan and to use sunscreen with low SPF (sun protection factor) levels.

    Reporting the findings, Dr Charlotte Proby, consultant dermatologist and senior lecturer at the Cancer Research UK Skin Tumour Laboratory at Barts and the London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine, London, said: “Many teenagers have grown up with an obsession about getting a tan on holiday. But young skin is very vulnerable to UK radiation. Sunburn in childhood can double the risk of melanoma. Unless young people change their habits and learn to protect themselves properly in the sun we could be heading for a skin cancer time bomb.”

    Results from the survey, which was carried out by Cancer Research UK, have prompted a campaign to provide information to teenagers going abroad alone for the first time, as well as parents of young children, to reduce the risk of skin cancer by proper protection from the sun. The SunSmart campaign, being run jointly with the Department of Health in England and health departments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, will recommend that people make sure that they never burn in the sun, always cover up with a T shirt, wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses, use factor 15 plus sunscreen, and stay in the shade between 11 am and 3 pm. People will also be reminded to report any changes in moles or any unusual skin growths promptly to their GPs.

    Cases of malignant melanoma are increasing rapidly in the Britain. Almost 7000 people in the United Kingdom were diagnosed with the condition in 2000, and the incidence is increasing more rapidly, at a rate of 3-7% a year, than for any other cancer. Malignant melanoma is now the third most common cancer in people aged 15-39 years. In 2000, there were 1680 deaths from melanoma—more than in Australia (whose population is a third of the United Kingdom's and where sunshine levels are much higher). Dr Proby commented: “Malignant melanoma is largely a preventable cancer, and we need to ensure that the public knows how it can reduce the risk.”

    More information on the SunSmart campaign is available at http://www.sunsmart.org.uk/.

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