The Dangers of Sunburns and Tanning Beds

Sun overexposure and tanning beds lead to skin cancer among young adults

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The allure of bronze skin leads many young adults towards risky behaviors. With high rates of sun exposure and tanning bed use, people in this age group face grave risks as they age.

Despite increased public awareness regarding the dangers of the sun exposure and tanning beds, sunburn rates have not declined in kind and tanning beds are still quite popular.

Reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that sunburn rates and tanning bed use has remained the same over the past ten years.

These reports were the result of a joint venture between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the CDC. The lead authors for the tanning bed report were Anne Hartman, MS, of the NCI and Gery Guy, PhD, of the CDC. Hartman was also a lead author on the sunburn and sun protection report, along with Dawn Holman, MPH, of the CDC.

Data for these reports came from the cancer control supplement of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), specifically from the years 2000, 2005 and 2010.

Each year, the CDC surveys a cross-sectional sample of the population of the US with the NHIS, usually including around 80,000 individuals. These survey participants come from all across the country and include men and women of all ages and races.

These NCI and CDC reports were designed to analyze sun protection habits in people aged 18 to 29 during the first decade of the new century, as well as looking at tanning bed use among this population.

According to the report on sun protection strategies, Americans aged 18 to 29 have increased their use of sunburn prevention methods between 2000 and 2010.

Sun Protection Among Women and Men

The most common sun protection for women in 2010 was sunscreen use, with 37 percent of women reporting this method, a 5 percent increase from 2000. The second most common method of sunburn protection was actively staying in the shade, with 35 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2000.

Wearing ankle-length clothing came in third with 26 percent, up from 21 percent in 2005. Few women report wearing long sleeves or wide-brimmed hats, with women reporting their use only 5 or 4 percent of the time, respectively. These last two protection strategies have declined by about 2 percent each.

In 2010, men reported using the same top three sunburn protection methods, but in a different order. Thirty-three percent of men report wearing ankle length clothing compared to 27 percent in 2010.

Twenty-six percent of men actively stay in the shade, compared to 17 percent in 2000. Only 16 percent of men report using sunscreen in 2010, which is unchanged from 2000.

Wide-brimmed hats were least popular, with only 7 percent of men reporting their use. Wearing long sleeves was reported by 8 percent. These rates have not changed over the years studied.

Sunburn Rates Still High

Overall sunburn rates were basically the same between sexes. In 2010, 52 percent of women and 50 percent of men reported sunburn in the last 12 months. These rates are basically the same as the rates of sunburn in 2000, which were only different by a few tenths of a percent for both men and women.

In 2010, white people reported the highest rate of sunburn at 65 percent, for both men and women. Black people reported the lowest rates of sunburn, with men at only 7 percent and women at 13 percent. Again, these rates were practically the same in 2000 as in 2010.

FDA Sunscreen Labeling Changes

SPF, or sun protection factor, roughly refers to how much a sunscreen blocks the rays that cause sunburn, mainly UVB rays. Sunscreen products that are labeled “broad spectrum” are formulated to block UVA rays as well.

New Food and Drug Administration regulations will require special labels on “broad spectrum” sunscreen that are SPF 15 or higher. These labels will highlight these products’ ability to reduce cancer rates when used with other protective measures, thus emphasizing other measures such as sun protective clothing in conjunction with sunscreen.

With sunscreen use at only 37 percent for women and 16 percent for men, Holman and Hartman feel that the new FDA labeling will encourage higher rates of sunscreen use for both sexes in the coming years.

Men and women both have a high rate of wearing ankle-length clothing, but neither wear sleeves or wide-brimmed hats very often. The new FDA labeling emphasizes other protective measures in addition to sunscreen, reinforcing the importance of wearing protective clothing like sleeves and hats in addition to using sunscreen.

Tanning Bed Use Highest Among Women and Young Adults

Tanning beds are used at much higher rates by people between the ages of 18 and 25, with as much as 12 percent of this age group reporting their use. Rates begin to drop after this age group, though they remain near 10 percent until after the age of 29. The most common demographic to report tanning was white women aged 18 to 25 who are middle or upper class and in college.

Men had significantly lower tanning bed use. The highest rate of use for men was 4 percent for those aged 18 to 25. Women in this age group were much more likely to use tanning beds, with a rate of 21 percent of this age group reporting tanning bed use. Tanning bed use does not drop below 15 percent for women until they reach their 30s.

Indoor Tanning Radiation Exposure

According to Hartman and Guy, the light from tanning bed lamps is actually more dangerous than that of the sun. Tanning beds can expose people to as much as four times the UVA and twice as much UVB as they would get from afternoon sun.

This is particularly important for young adults. A World Health Organization study cited by Hartman and Guy found that tanning in young adulthood could lead to a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in later life.

Future Strategies for Lower Cancer Rates

Men and women have different strategies for preventing sunburn. Though neither sex had a particularly high use of sunscreen, women were twice as likely to use sunscreen as men. Still, less than 40 percent of women used sunscreen, leaving room for improvement.

Another strategy that could help both men and women is protective clothing. Ankle-length clothing was fairly common, but only 33 percent of men and 26 percent of women use this strategy. Sleeves and hats were the least used strategies for both sexes.

With the new FDA labeling regulations for sunscreen emphasizing diverse sun protection methods, as well as possible regulations for tanning beds that would require a disclosure of risk, the authors of these reports feel that steps are being made to increase public awareness of skin cancer risks and ways to decrease that risk.

Both of these reports appeared in the May 11 volume of the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The funding was provided by the NCI and the CDC, all data used in these reports came from the CDC National Health Interview Survey. There were no reported conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
June 18, 2012