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May 2020

Deadly Skin Cancer Is on the Rise Among Young People

No, base tans don’t protect against sunburns and skin damage. A bronze hue doesn’t equal a healthy glow. Rather, tans and burns both signal exposure to cancer-causing UV rays.     

But these misconceptions persist, and they do more than make dermatologists bang their fists in frustration. These myths may also have deadly consequences.    

A new study finds a 51% increase in the rates of the dangerous skin cancer melanoma on the heads and necks of kids, teens, and young adults in North America over the past two decades.

Fair skin and bright sun boost risk

Melanoma begins when mutations develop in cells called melanocytes, which make skin’s pigment. Most diagnoses come later in life, at an average age of 65.

But that doesn’t make younger people immune. In fact, melanoma is the most common skin cancer among children. It occurs even more often in teens ages 15 to 19.   

People with fair skin, light eyes, and red or blonde hair are at higher risk. The study authors point out that two other main risk factors—sun exposure and use of tanning beds—are most common among adolescents and young adults.

Only about 1 in 5 cases form on the head and neck. However, the prognosis for melanoma in these locations is worse than on other parts of the body.

Parents: protect and detect

The best way to save your child or teen’s skin? Start sun-safety education early.

Explain during childhood that tanning exposes skin to cancer-causing UV rays. As they reach adolescence, continue to discourage it, even for one-time events like prom, homecoming, and spring break.      

Remember the ABCDE method of detecting skin cancer. Signs include moles that have:

  • Asymmetry

  • Borders or edges that are irregular

  • Color that’s not uniform

  • Diameter of more than 6 millimeters

  • Evolved over time

If you spot these signs on your child, talk with his or her pediatrician or a dermatologist.



Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2020
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