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Who is at Risk?

Although anyone can get skin cancer, people with certain characteristics are particularly at risk. Skin cancer is more common among people with lightly pigmented skin. People who are sensitive to the sun (those who easily burn and do not tan easily) have a greater risk for skin cancer because they are more likely to have acute sunburns when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Exposure to sunlight can be harmful, particularly if it results in sunburn. Current data suggest that sunlight exposure accumulated over a prolonged period influences the development of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Episodic, relatively infrequent exposure to a large amount of sunlight sufficient to cause sunburn is believed to play a major role in the development of melanoma.

Whites are 10 times more likely than blacks to have skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results 1986-1990 data suggest that under the age of 40, women are more likely than men to have melanoma, whereas over the age of 40, men are more likely to develop melanoma.

Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays appears to be the most important factor in the development of skin cancer. Skin cancer is largely preventable when sun protection measures are consistently used. However, approximately 70% of American adults do not protect themselves from the sun's dangerous rays. There is a culture which says that a well-tanned skin is an indicator of overall good health. According to the results of National Health Interview Survey,

  • Only 30% of adults seek shade.
  • Only 28% wear protective clothing when exposed to sunlight.
  • Only 32% routinely use sunscreen lotion.

Three-fourths of adults reported that their children (aged 12 and younger) used some form of sun protection, according to the results of a 1997 American Academy of Dermatology household telephone survey. However, specific sun protection measures reported by adults for their children varied:

  • 54% of children sought shade.
  • 57% wore hats, and 8% wore shirts.
  • 53% used sunscreen.

These results highlight the need for educating children and adults about the preventive measures that can be taken to reduce or avoid UV exposure. Research suggests that healthy behavior patterns established in early childhood often persist throughout life. Parents, health care providers, schools, and community organizations can play a major role in reinforcing sun protection behaviors (e.g., staying out of direct sunlight or timing outdoor activities for hours when UV light is less intense) and changing attitudes about exposure to the sun (e.g., the opinion that a person looks more attractive with a tan).

Are You at Risk?

You are at risk for skin cancer if you:

  • have fair skin; blond, red, or light brown hair; and blue, green, or gray eyes
  • have freckles and burn before tanning
  • spend a great deal of time outdoors
  • have ever been treated for skin cancer
  • have a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma
  • have a personal history of skin cancer
  • have a history of sunburns early in life
  • have atypical moles or a large number of moles
  • work indoors all week and try to get a week's worth of tanning on the weekend
  • live or vacation at high altitudes, (UV rays increase 4 to 5% for every 1,000 feet above sea level)
  • have certain diseases, such as lupus
  • take certain medications; acne medications, antibiotics, such as tetracyclines, antihistamines, oral contraceptives containing estrogen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as naproxen, sodium phenothiazines (tranquilizers and anti-nausea drugs) sulfa drugs, tricyclic antidepressants, thiazide diuretics, oral anti-diabetics

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Date of Last Update: 07/27/12