Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world, and melanoma is the most dangerous kind of skin cancer. It affects about 2 percent of people during their lifetime on average, and rates are going up. Unlike basal and squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma of the skin starts deeper within the skin and spreads quickly unless removed.
But really, how seriously do you take skin cancer? The answer to that question might depend on your age, race, and where you live, and all of these factors determine your risk. The older you are and the paler your skin, the higher your chances are of being diagnosed with skin cancer of any type. Even though sun exposure plays a big part, the sunniest places in America are not the places with the highest incidences of melanoma. Indeed, the state-by-state statistics may surprise you.
The states with the highest rates of melanoma
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highest rates of melanoma are in some of the cloudiest states, like Washington, Oregon, and Vermont. Rates are per 100,000 residents, and it should be noted that data is not available for Arkansas or Minnesota.
3. New Hampshire—31.4
The undisputed sunniest city in America is Yuma, Arizona and although the diverse climate in the U.S. makes statewide calculations difficult, Arizona safely takes the lead. Other sunny states are Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Hawaii, California, and of course, Florida, the so-called “Sunshine State.” However, Utah and Wyoming are relatively sunny states, so there isn’t a definitive trend when it comes to sunshine days and melanoma alone.
Why the trend?
Since melanoma risk is increased with sun exposure, why do some of the cloudiest states have the highest melanoma rates? The answer may lie in behavior differences by location, though we can’t draw a direct cause and effect conclusion. Common advice is to apply sunscreen and wear protective gear when in the sun, but many people don’t follow this advice on cloudy days. Even so, harmful rays seep through the clouds and can cause skin damage. Even on very cloudy days, as much as 80 percent of harmful UV rays can get through. In locations with a lot of clouds, residents may be skipping on sun protection more often, leading to higher exposure to UV rays.
Since people in cloudy climates don’t see the need to protect themselves from the sun often, they may be out of the habit of doing so on sunny days as well. Because these places are so cloudy, residents are more likely to be pale, and on a sunny day may suffer more extreme sunburns as a result. Tanned skin is still unhealthy skin and is a risk factor for melanoma, but a greater risk factor is the number of severe sunburns over a lifetime. What about Utah and Wyoming, though?
The role of race
What appears to be a trend in cloudy climates with high skin cancer rates may actually be the coincidence of two trends. Most of the states with the highest rates of melanoma also have some of the highest concentrations of white people, and white people are diagnosed with skin cancer far more often than other races. In fact, six of the states listed above are in the top 10 in terms of white populations, with eight in the top 20. Interestingly, the state with the highest incidence of melanoma, Delaware, has the fewest white residents on the list.
The Whitest States
1. Vermont—95.3 percent
2. Maine—95.2 percent
3. New Hampshire—93.9 percent
4. West Virginia—93.9 percent
5. Iowa—91.3 percent
6. Wyoming—90.7 percent
7. North Dakota—90 percent
8. Montana—89.4 percent
9. Idaho—89.1 percent
10. Kentucky—87.8 percent
13. Utah—86.1 percent
18. Oregon—83.6 percent
28. Washington—77.3 percent
35. Delaware—68.9 percent
When it comes to developing melanoma, the biggest risk factors are sun exposure and white skin. The good news is that survival rates are high, but that’s no reason to ignore the risk—costs of treatment can reach the thousands. Additionally, even though white people develop melanoma more easily, nobody is immune. To protect yourself from skin cancer of all types, your best bet is to wear protective clothing and sunscreen every day, even when it’s cloudy.
Lacie Glover writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that empowers consumers to find high quality, affordable health care and insurance.