A recent American Academy of Dermatology survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults revealed that many Generation Z adults, ages 18-25, are unaware of the risks associated with overexposure to the sun and believe tanning myths. In recognition of Skin Cancer Awareness Month this May, the AAD encourages everyone to practice safe sun to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays and reduce their risks of developing skin cancer.
According to the survey, 71% of Gen Z adults are unfamiliar with the risks associated with sunburn, with 40% being unaware of tanning risks and 59% believing tanning myths, such as tanning is healthy, and a base tan will prevent sunburn.
Tanning is a risk factor for skin cancer, but 20% of Gen Z adults say that getting a tan is more important to them than preventing skin cancer. In fact, 30% said that it is worth looking great now even if it means looking worse later in life.
Board-certified dermatologist Jennifer Holman MD, FAAD, who is in private practice in Tyler, Texas, knows the dangers of these tanning myths all too well. Dr. Holman regularly used indoor tanning salons throughout college and was stunned to learn that she had developed melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, in her early 20s.
“During my fourth year of medical school – it was actually the week after I had matched into a dermatology residency program – my husband noticed that a mole on my stomach was changing,” she said. “I asked one of my mentors to examine it, and he immediately knew that it looked suspicious.”
Luckily for Dr. Holman, the mole was in a very early stage of melanoma and was surgically removed without requiring further treatment.
Dr. Holman tells her patients that getting one blistering sunburn when they’re young nearly doubles their risk of getting melanoma, and one tanning session alone can increase the chances of developing melanoma by 75% before the age of 35.
Yet the AAD’s study revealed that Gen Z is disproportionately more likely to be at risk, and to be unaware of that fact. Seventy-one percent were unaware of risks associated with sunburn. Thirty-six percent reported being sunburned in 2022, and 41% of those sunburned reported a sunburn severe enough that their clothes were uncomfortable.
“One of the biggest mistakes that many of my patients make regarding sun protection is not reapplying their sunscreen properly,” Dr. Holman said. “I remind them that sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, especially if they’re in the water.”
To protect yourself from the sun and reduce your risk of skin cancer, the AAD and Dr. Holman recommend that people:
- Seek shade. Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. You can also look at your shadow. Any time your shadow appears shorter than you, seek shade.
- Wear sun-protective clothing. Wear a lightweight and long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses with UV protection, when possible. For more effective protection, select clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) number on the label.
- Apply sunscreen. Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all skin not covered by clothing. Remember to reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
“It’s important for people to know that sun damage is cumulative, meaning that it adds up over time,” said Dr. Holman. “What you do now makes a difference with your skin cancer risk down the road. If you notice any new spots on your skin, any spots that look different from the others, or anything changing, itching or bleeding, see a board-certified dermatologist.”