Teenagers sunbake despite skin cancer knowledge

A teenager’s world is paved with warning signs. Whether the signs urge teens to avoid drinking, smoking or even tanning, the message is the same – sooner or later, the consequences of their actions will catch up with them. When it comes to tanning, teenagers know that tanning can cause skin cancer but choose to tan to “look good” anyway, according to a new survey by the American Academy of Dermatology.

Speaking today at the Academy’s Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month news conference, dermatologist Darrell S. Rigel, M.D., clinical professor, New York University Medical Center in New York, N.Y., offered new data demonstrating how teens view tanning and differences by gender and demographics.

The Academy survey illustrated that among teenagers age 12 to 17, most teens (79 percent) are aware that getting a tan from the sun can be dangerous for their skin. In fact, 81 percent of teens indicated that they know that the sunburns they got as a child increase their risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. But despite this knowledge, 60 percent of the teens surveyed admitted that they got sunburned last summer.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to teens, vanity rules out every time,” said Dr. Rigel. “If the perception is that a tan makes them look better, then teens will bask in the sun without protection to achieve one. What’s ironic is that a tan is fleeting, whereas the scars and disfigurement that often occur from skin cancer are permanent.”

Further reinforcing Dr. Rigel’s argument that vanity plays a key role in why teens continue to tan, the survey found that despite knowing that the sun can be dangerous to their skin, a majority of teens (66 percent) still think people look better with a tan. Even more alarming is that while 38 percent of teens claim to know someone who has or had skin cancer, 47 percent of them actually think that people look healthier with a tan.

When sun protective behaviors were explored by gender, the survey highlighted distinct differences between teen boys and girls. In general, teen girls are more careful about protecting themselves from the sun than teen boys – 59 percent of girls say they are very or somewhat careful vs. only 36 percent of boys.

In terms of how they protect themselves from the sun, girls are much more likely than boys to wear sunscreen (53 percent vs. 33 percent), slightly more likely to wear protective clothing (52 percent vs. 48 percent) and slightly more likely to stay in the shade when they are outdoors for a long period of time (57 percent vs. 53 percent). While more boys than girls report wearing a hat outdoors (50 percent vs. 22 percent), boys usually wear baseball caps that do not provide adequate sun protection on the face, neck or ears.

The survey also revealed how teens’ attitudes about sun exposure varied by region of the country, with teens in the northeast region being the most careful to protect themselves from sun exposure (54 percent) and teens in the north central region the least careful (44 percent). Not surprisingly, given that they are the least careful, teens in the north central region also are most likely to have gotten sunburned last summer (66 percent).

Since studies show that five or more sunburns double your risk of developing skin cancer, Dr. Rigel cautions teens who continue to tan or get sunburned that the odds of avoiding skin cancer later in life are not in their favor.

“Skin cancer has become an epidemic in this country and until we see a change in behavior when it comes to teens and tanning, I’m certain that skin cancer rates will skyrocket when these teens reach adulthood,” said Dr. Rigel. “Whether they choose to tan by outdoor sun exposure or tanning beds, both are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.”

The study results were determined by a random sample telephone survey conducted among a national sample of 505 teens comprising 254 males and 251 females 12 to 17 years of age, living in private households in the continental United States. This TEEN CARAVAN® survey was conducted in February 2005 by Opinion Research Corporation (Princeton, N.J.) in collaboration with the Academy.

For more information about skin cancer, visit the Academy’s patient education Web site at http://www.skincarephysicians.com and select “SkinCancerNet.”


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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