Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Colorado’s sunny days mean skin needs extra protection

University tour guides customarily mention that Denver receives more than 300 days of sunshine a year, yet current statistics indicate that few young people, such as the prospective students who attend these tours, are taking the necessary steps to protect themselves from the negative effects of sun exposure.

One negative effect, aside from premature aging, is the development of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, melanoma is the second most common type of cancer for people ages 15–29.

Although melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer, accounting for only about 3 percent of all skin cancers, its incidence is increasing faster than that of almost any other cancer, according to the foundation.

James Regan, doctor of internal medicine at DU’s Health and Counseling Center, points to extensive sunburns in adolescence and tanning booth exposure as factors contributing to the increase.

Regan stresses that no matter what, unprotected sun exposure increases an individual’s risk of developing a form of skin cancer because, he says, “Cumulative exposure goes up regardless of whether you get a burn or not.”

While risk of developing skin cancer depends on a number of aspects — family history, elevation, geographic location, number and size of moles — cumulative sun exposure plays an important role.

The foundation reports that tanning bed use before age 35 increases melanoma risk by 75 percent. Nearly 2.3 million American teenagers visit tanning beds annually.

“People are a little cavalier about sun exposure,” Regan says. “People seem to believe that melanoma is more easily detected and treated than it is.”

Like other forms of cancer, the successful treatment of melanoma depends largely upon early detection. If detected before it reaches lymph nodes, the survival rate is about 99 percent. Once it progresses, however, the survival rate plummets to 15 percent.

To protect yourself, limit direct sun exposure during midday, wear a hat and clothing that protects as much skin as possible, use sunscreen with SPF of 15 or higher and wear sunglasses that block UV rays.

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