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Young People Skipping Sunscreen

Americans, who eight years ago seemed to be heeding warnings to take precautions against the sun, are now back at the beach with little protection, according to a new survey.

In 1996, 54 percent of those who were out in the sun used sunscreen regularly, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), but the organization's 2003 survey found that the percentage of Americans reporting regular use of sunscreen has dropped to 40 percent, says Dr. Darrell Rigel, a dermatologist at the New York University Medical Center.

Even more discouraging is that young people under 25, the age group for whom sun protection is most important for preventing future cancers, are even less likely to use sunscreen. Only 34 percent of this age group reports using sunscreen regularly, compared to 49 percent of those young people who claimed they used protection in 1996.

"There is clearly a disconnect. The message is out there that sun is bad for you, but people still think they look better and healthier with a tan," Rigel says.
The reasons why young people are flocking to the sun, or tanning salons, are several, say dermatologists.

"The cultural taste needs to change from the idea that a tan looks 'hot,' that you need it to look great at the prom," says Dr. James Spencer, a dermatologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Also a problem, says Rigel, is the latent nature of skin cancer. It usually doesn't manifest itself until 10 or 20 years after sun exposure, which for most young people might as well be never.

"They're not going to get skin cancer until they're 50 or 60, and when you're 16, you're not worried about what's going to happen when you're 60 -- kids feel immortal," he says.

Rigel and Spencer made their remarks Tuesday in New York City at an AAD press conference launching the 2003 Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, which will kick off next Monday with free skin-cancer screenings at Bryant Park in Manhattan and elsewhere in the United States.

Other findings in the study:
    * People over 35 were more diligent about avoiding sun exposure than were people under that age. Since 1996, these adults reported a 16 percent decrease in the number of sunburns they received. Among those under 18, by contrast, the numbers of people reporting at least one sunburn increased from 52 percent to 61 percent from 1996 to 2003.
    * 79 percent of people over 35 reported putting sunscreen on their children and grandchildren.
    * Use of tanning salons by those under the age of 25 jumped dramatically, from 8 percent in 1996 to 26 percent in 2003. Women use the salons far more than men.

These findings are extremely worrisome in view of the fact that the incidence of skin cancer is on the rise, Rigel says.

"This is the only major cancer that is still increasing, with incidence increasing at 6 percent a year and the death rate rising 2 percent annually," he says.

In 2003, there will be more than 1 million cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the United States, Rigel says. The most common and most easily treated type is basal cell carcinoma, which will affect approximately 900,000 people. There will be approximately 250,000 cases of squamous cell carcinoma, and 91,900 cases of melanoma, which is the most serious form of skin cancer. It is estimated that 7,600 people will die from melanoma in 2003.

Skin cancer is caused by overexposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun.
"There is no such thing as a safe tan," says Spencer, "and we have to change the perception of what a true healthy look is."