By April Daniels Husser
Who doesn't love a sun-kissed glow? These days, however, you're much better off getting your color from a bottle or a great bronzer, because despite all the products with SPF at our disposal -- and all the info out there about the dangers of tanning beds -- more young women than ever before are developing melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
So what's going on? And how can you keep yourself safe?
More than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And, according to a new study from the Mayo Clinic, the last 40 years have seen a dramatic increase in cases of melanoma. In the past, it's been true that men have a higher lifetime risk of melanoma than women, but this study shows a reversal of that trend in young adults. Between 1970 and 2009, melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men ages 18 to 39.
"It's definitely an epidemic," Marina Peredo, M.D., F.A.A.D, Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and founder of Marina I. Peredo, M.D., P.C. Dermatology and Spatique Medical Spa in Smithtown, N.Y., tells HealthySELF.
But what's behind this epidemic? Doesn't everyone know to wear sunscreen? "It's twofold," says Dr. Peredo, who thinks it's a combination of the fact that people are still using tanning beds, and that the dermatological community is diagnosing more skin cancer in the earlier stages.
Ah, yes -- tanning beds. Dr. Peredo herself likens them to smoking and having unprotected sex in terms of deadly heath risks. "They're bad. Really bad," she says.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) agrees: In 2009, they elevated tanning bed use to the highest possible cancer risk category -- "carcinogenic to humans" -- right up there with cigarettes. And a new study, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, found that if you have ever used an indoor tanning device, you are about 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma than non-users. Frequent users (meaning at least 50 hours, at least 100 sessions or at least 10 years) are 2.5 to 3 times more likely than non-users.
Dr. Peredo explains there are three most common types of skin cancer -- Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Melanoma. The first two, which are most often sun-induced, are usually less dangerous than melanoma, says Dr. Peredo. "They're normally just locally aggressive -- they can invade into the surrounding tissue, cartilage and muscle, but they rarely metastasize."
Melanoma, on the other hand, is caused both by sun exposure and by having a genetic predisposition (for example, having a lot of moles and/or having a family history of melanoma), says Dr. Peredo. "If melanoma is not caught very early, it's deadly," she says. "It will metastasize and can spread to your lungs, liver, brain -- and kill pretty rapidly."
So with all this in mind (yikes!) -- how can you protect yourself?
1. Avoid tanning beds. Really. Stay away from them. Do you just love the way tanning salons make you feel? SELF shows you how to get the same results without putting your life at risk here.
2. Use sunscreen daily and in the proper amounts. Dr. Peredo recommends using SPF 30 or above, every day. If you're going to be out in the sun, say at the pool, the amount you should be using is a full shot glass over your whole body for one application. "If you use half of that, the SPF of 30 will be cut in half to 15," says Dr. Peredo. "If you're in the sun for a couple of hours, you should reapply every 30 minutes.
3. Try to avoid the sun between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., which, says Dr. Peredo, is when it's at its most intense.
4. Don't think you can't get burned on a cloudy day. Use sunscreen.
5. Don't think you can't get ultraviolet radiation through a window on a sunny day.
6. Do regular skin checks on yourself. What are the signs to look out for? The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), as well as many other cancer resources, recommends using the "ABCDE's of melanoma" when checking yourself for signs of danger:
A for Asymmetry: One half is different than the other half.
B for Border: The borders of the mole can be scalloped, jagged, uneven or poorly defined.
C for Color: Dr. Peredo explains that melanomas are usually dark in pigment, but they can be lighter; basel and squamous cells are usually pinkish.
D for Diameter: Melanomas usually are greater than 6mm. "They can be smaller, but a general rule is to look for something greater than a pencil eraser," says Dr. Peredo. Also look for something with an uneven color, usually different shades of brown or black when it comes to melanomas.
E for Evolving: Warning signs include a mole that's different from all your other moles, or is changing in size, shape or color. "Look for anything that's new or that has changed," says Dr. Peredo, "for example, if you have a mole that was always there, but suddenly it starts bleeding or itching or bubbling up."
Also -- keep in mind that skin cancer cells aren't always raised. "Basal and squamous cells in particular can be flat, smooth, or scaly; they rarely have pigment and can even look like dry patches of skin in the early stages" says Dr. Peredo. "Melanoma can be flat or raised."
7. Finally, if you see or suspect ANYTHING suspicious, get thee to a dermatologist! In fact, if you have a lot of moles, or have never visited a dermatologist for a precautionary check, it's a good idea to make an appointment, says Dr. Peredo.
"With melanoma, the difference between life and death is early detection," she says. "A lot of people think, 'Maybe if I ignore it, it will go away.'" No. "If something looks unusual or different -- get it checked. A lot of the time it's nothing, but that's OK! Don't be scared of the unknown," says Dr. Peredo. "But if you do find that something is wrong, get it off your body."