Study Reveals Skin Cancer Risks for College Students are High in Winter Months

Skin Cancer Risks in Winter for College Students | Spectrum Dermatology

Study Reveals Skin Cancer Risks for College Students are High in Winter Months

If you’re in college or have a child in college, you might not think that sunscreen is as important during these cloudy days—or you may think that skin cancer isn’t a huge risk for those in their teens and twenties. At Spectrum Dermatology, we routinely see patients of all ages (including youth and children) with a diagnosis of skin cancer. The good news is that skin cancer is 100 percent preventable and also easily treated when caught in its early stages. The best way to prevent skin cancer is to wear sunscreen on a daily basis, reapply every 90 minutes, and make sure it’s applied liberally to every part of exposed skin. It’s also important to avoid sunlight whenever possible, seek out shade, and cover your skin with clothing, hats, and sunglasses, but that isn’t feasible 24/7.

Ultraviolet rays, which cause the damage that leads to skin cancer, do not take a break during winter months. In fact, some people are even more susceptible to UV damage during these months if they participate in activities like skiing, snowboarding, or snow shoeing. A recent study by researchers at Brigham Young University found that college students in particular are just as at-risk of developing skin cancer in winter months as in the summer. The full study can be found in The Journal of the Dermatology Nurses’ Association. According to researchers, younger people barely use sunscreen at all (even in the summer months!) and use tanning beds “far too often, with a significant uptick in colder months.”

If you thought that the days of indoor tanning were over, they are not. There was a fortunate downswing in the use of these dangerous machines in recent years, but researchers have found that younger people are once again being drawn to them. Of course, very few people wear sunscreen while indoor tanning.

Research Revelations on Sunscreen

Of the surveyed participants, just nine percent use sunscreen. The college students also reported that they increased their tanning bed usage. It may surprise some that men in particular seek out tanning beds, as that was not the trend in years past. However, this may be because tanning beds are being used as a way to soak up vitamin D and fight depression, including Seasonal Depressive Disorder (SAD), rather than trying to get a tan. The study found that over 50 percent of college students stated that they use tanning beds. If you use a tanning bed before the age of 35, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claim that your risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent. Melanoma is the deadliest of all skin cancers.

Protecting Your Skin in the Winter

The senior study author, Katreena Merrill, shares that the worst sunburn she ever got was while skiing without sunscreen. Her team of researchers also considered risk behavior by phenotype (skin color). Those with fairer skin and/or red hair (low melanin levels) were unsurprisingly found to be at the highest risk of developing skin cancer. This is true regardless of age, as melanin does provide some natural UV protection. However, people with high amounts of melanin, as well as any skin tone and color, can and do develop skin cancer. Never consider melanin a good enough protectant from skin cancer or UV damage.

Researchers further found that students with fair skin are not more likely to wear sunscreen or go tanning than others. Failing to use sunscreen, indoor tanning, and winter sports are a potentially deadly cocktail. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that 20 percent of Americans will have some type of skin cancer by age 70, and if you’ve had at least five sunburns you have double the risk for melanoma. Some states have more cases of diagnosed skin cancer than others, and many wrongly assume states like Hawaii or Florida top the list. In reality, the Midwest often tops this list. Those who live in tropical climates with sunshine year-round might be more used to wearing sunscreen regardless of the time of year.

If you’re the parent of a college student, there’s a good chance they are studying from home or (hopefully) avoiding group outings to the mountains. Take this unprecedented time to educate (or re-educate) them on the year-round dangers of sun damage. Sunscreen should be worn any time they are exposed to UV rays, and tanning beds should never be used. Annual mole checks are also critical for early detection, and you can now schedule yours online at Spectrum Dermatology.