Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Assaulted By Sunlight: The Truth About Skin Cancer

The NYTimes and The Washington Post are reporting today that the FDA is ready to go ahead and move along with regulation on changing standards for sunscreen products.  Well, great. How long has it taken them to decide that the standards need to be changed in order to protect Americans from harmful UV protection? Oh...about 33 years. And that is just about as long as I have been alive and active in the sun. 

Being fair skinned, I have always had an uneven relationship with the Sun, I love it, but it does not love me. When I was in Kindergarten, some of the kids in class would make fun of me for being overly-freckled. My teacher, Mrs. Rich said that my freckles were "little kisses from the sun" on my arms and face. I know that she was just trying to make me feel better about looking a little different and having to be more careful in the sun, but Mrs. Rich lied! Those aren't sun kisses, I have been assaulted by sunlight! And I am not alone in not realizing just how much danger I have been in all of this time.

According to the American Melanoma Foundation, "One American dies of melanoma almost every hour (every 61 minutes). In 2009, 8,650 deaths will be attributed to melanoma - 5,550 men and 3,100 women." That is a staggering figure, and according to the same organization, at the current rate, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. That would all be worrisome enough, except that the rate of skin cancer and melanoma is rising, and has been rising steadily over the past 30 years. According to the American Cancer Society, "skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. More than 2 million cases of non-threatening melanoma skin cancer are found in this country each year." So, how is melanoma so prevalent in our society, yet it gets so little attention? The problem may have been in the bottle...

The NY Times reported in 2006, that a class-action suit in California was brought against some of the best selling sunscreen brands for something resembling false advertising for selling a false sense of protection. If they won the case then they would prove that wording such as "sun block", "water proof" and "sweat proof" did give the inclination that you would wear an "SPF 50 waterproof sunscreen" in the pool and be protected. The truth is that the bottle was right in its facts, but wrong in the knowledge of what it was selling. Sunblock and sunscreen do have the essential ingredients which block SPF UVB rays, the sunlight which causes sun burn. What SPF does not protect you from are the UVA rays - the rays which cause skin cancer. That is an important distinction, and it is that very distinction which has caused the FDA to get involved in changing the regulation for sunscreen products. 

The FDA web site has listed the language which has prompted a change in the way that products will be allowed to market themselves in the future. (The future being 2012, and it doesn't say anything about recalling the current sunscreen/sunblock products which still exist). Which means that, unless you are reading this or getting your news form some other source, you might still be using current sun screen and only protecting yourself from a partial spectrum of harmful sunlight.

What is also worth noting is that skin cancer is not only for the fair skinned (like me) or the poor, which may have no choice but to expose themselves to sun radiation during peak summer months. The highest rate of skin cancer is in the wealthiest of communities, with young women. FoxNews reported that there was an unprecedentedly high rate of melanoma in "adolescent girls and young women living in wealthy communities." There is only speculation as to why this might be at this point, but the prevailing thinking is that wealthy women have more time to spend lying in the sun or visiting tanning salons. Fox News also reports that a study conducted by Dr. Christina Clarke of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California found that young women (aged 15 to 39) in these neighborhoods were 4 or 5 times more likely to develop melanoma over the general population. 

It would be different if we could speculate that California women in the most affluent of neighborhoods were contracting a higher risk for skin cancer, but it doesn't stop there! While natural exposure to sunlight during peak hours can be prevented and therefor lessen one's risk of contracting melanoma, there is a year-round industry which may also be complicit in the rising rates of skin cancer in young people, the indoor tanning salon.

In the top 100 cities in the U.S. (per population) there were 42 tanning salons. That exceeded the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s for those cities, and that...

76% of the teens lived within 2 miles of a tanning salon. Those living within 2 miles of a tanning salon were significantly more likely to have used indoor tanning than those not living within 2 miles of a salon.
It is this phenomenon of indoor tanning facilities which is leading some states to start banning minors from entering. Currently, 32 states have legislation which would ban anyone under the age of 18 from using indoor tanning salons. And while some tanning establishments have a limit on how many times a person can frequent their facility in a given time, there is nothing stopping that same consumer from going to a rival tanning salon across town or installing an indoor tanning bed in their home.

Obviously, the indoor tanning industry is not taking this criticism lying down. After the 2006 class action law suit was published and circulated, this memo was sent from "International Smart Tan" to its affiliates. It's title: What To Tell Your Community About the Sunscreen Lawsuit.
"Here’s the bottom line: The indoor tanning industry has been right all along: Sunburn
prevention is the key to minimizing the risk of skin cancer. Smart Tanning means
sunburn prevention while tanning indoors, and the appropriate usage – not the over-use –
of sunscreen outdoors"
The memo also mentions that the lawsuit "does not involve the indoor tanning industry or any of its vendors" which is true. It gives a couple of other bullet points about how lacking proper access to sunlight can add to Vitamin D deficiencies (also true) and supplies a web site to direct their consumers to:

This adaptation from the industry is far from over. Until there is a baseline knowledge of the actual dangers of over-exposure to sunlight and the risk associated with skin cancer, we cannot expect for the problem to just go away. Most people, particularly young people are overly-concerned with how they look and I know many people who regularly have dark (artificial) tans all winter long. I have been assaulted by sunlight. In part, most likely, because when my mom was dabbing me with "water proof SPF50" in the summertime, we both thought that I was wearing invisible armor against the harmful UV sunlight.  

Now we know better, let's act on that.

1 comment:

  1. In other words, the melanoma epidemic far exceeds the H1N1 Flu non-event.

    But billions were spent on fighting the Flu while melanoma was completely ignored.

    What can we conclude from this??

    I guess the suntan industry isn't into bribery and corruption. ;-)


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