The Dark Side of the Sun: Summer recreation, tanning beds and cancer prevention

Samir N. Khleif, MD Samir N. Khleif, MD
Director, GRU Cancer Center

The arrival of summer means beaches, barbecues and a host of other events and attractions that draw us all outdoors. Sadly, it also brings with it an increased risk for skin cancers, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States.

This year, more than 3.5 million people across the country will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer and more than 76,000 of those diagnoses will be melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Melanoma will account for approximately 9,000 of the 12,000 skin cancer deaths this year and is caused by damage to the DNA in the skin’s melanin cells, damage often attributed to exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Sobering statistics when we consider that most of these cases could have been prevented.

While skin cancer rates are highest in white males over the age of 50, there has been an unexpected rise in diagnosis rates in young people. Since 1970, the rate of diagnosis is four times as high in males in their teens and 20s and eight times higher in women counterparts.

Much of the blame is directed at the advent of the tanning bed. The Agency of International Research on Cancer equates the risk associated with tanning beds with that of cigarettes, and American Academy of Dermatology statistics show an increased connection between melanoma and regular tanning bed use.

Of course, tanning beds are far from the only cause of skin cancers. Common hazards associated with the sun include unprotected and prolonged exposure to natural ultraviolet rays, which is the most common cause of skin cancers and people with naturally pale skin, red or blonde hair, and who have had as few as five severe sunburns should be especially vigilant; severe sunburns during childhood, which increases the likelihood of skin cancer later in life; unfavorable family history; and a large number of moles and exposure to toxins.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are still considerable health benefits derived from spending time outdoors, not the least of which is the necessity of sunlight for the natural production of Vitamin D and the positive effect sunlight has on the human psyche.

There’s more good news. Skin cancer remains one of the more preventable forms of cancer, but prevention doesn’t mean staying indoors or remaining covered under the summer sun. The single most effective way to avoid damage done by the sun is through sunscreen application and maintenance. Applying a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 half an hour before going outside, and reapplying it every two hours or after swimming or sweating, provides proven protection from the sun’s UV rays. It’s also important to remember that the sun is at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and limiting exposure during those hours by taking regular breaks is an effective means of prevention, as is wearing sunglasses, hats and clothing that provides some degree of coverage. Eliminating the sun’s risks is eliminating the single most common cause of skin cancers, and the National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society and American Academy of Dermatology have recommend eliminating the use of tanning beds altogether.

Nobody is suggesting a summer season of hibernation. That’s no fun, and, with a little awareness and the willingness to take preventative steps, unnecessary.


Dr. Samir N. Khleif has more than 22 years’ experience in cancer research and treatment, including in the Cancer Vaccine Section at the National Cancer Institute. The GRU Cancer Center is working toward becoming a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

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Allison Brown
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Written by Allison Brown

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