A new study spanning multiple decades has found that skin cancer rates in the U.S. are rising dramatically, even as rates of other cancers are falling. The rise is most pronounced among young women, according to the researchers who conducted the study.
Mayo Clinic researchers studied health records dating back to the 1970s in Olmstead County, Mass., and found the number of melanoma cases in young adults has increased more than sixfold in the past 40 years. In young women specifically, the number of cases increased more than eightfold. For young men, the increase was fourfold.
“We anticipated we’d find rising rates, as other studies are suggesting, but we found an even higher incidence that the National Cancer Institute had reported…and in particular, a dramatic rise in women in their 20s and 30s,” said lead investigator Dr. Jerry Brewer, a Mayo Clinic dermatologist. The good news, according to the study, is the number of deaths from melanoma appears to be falling—most likely because of better awareness and earlier diagnosis.
While men typically have a higher lifetime risk of developing melanoma, the opposite is true for young adults and adolescents: Nearly two female cases are diagnosed for every one male case in young adults aged 20 to 24.
The researchers speculated that besides the incidence of childhood sunburns, some gender-specific behaviors may also explain the findings: Females, for example, are much more likely to use ultra-violet tanning beds than males (in most tanning salons, females make up 70 percent of the clientele).
Tanning beds have long been associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. A study in Iceland found that the melanoma rates among residents—who had very little exposure to the sun—significantly increased after the introduction of tanning beds.
“When you look at concentration of UV radiation from a tanning bed, it is significant,” Brewer said at a recent news conference. “Ten to 12 minutes in a tanning bed is the same as 10 to 12 minutes in the sun in the Mediterranean.”
“The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized tanning beds in the same category as plutonium and cigarettes in terms of cancer-causing potential,” he added.
Brewer said there should “absolutely” be restrictions in place to limit adolescents’ exposure to tanning beds—such as instituting an age limit or requiring a parent’s signature to use them – but putting these measures into place and enforcing those restrictions would be challenging.
“There are efforts already to ban tanning beds in certain state—32 of 50 states already have some kind of restriction,” Brewer said. “But if you tell kids they need their parents’ signatures, they’ll go home and sign it themselves. It’s like trying to ban cigarettes. It’s very difficult.”