Beware the UV rays: Utahns at high risk for contracting melanoma

While growing up in Hawaii, physical therapy student Brady Whetten spent his summers playing in the sun and getting painful sunburns.

Now that he’s older and worried about a family history of skin cancer, Whetten is more careful about applying sunscreen. Like Whetten, Utah students have a reason to be concerned.

According to the Utah Department of Health, Utah has the fourth highest rate of melanoma in the nation.

For college students, tanning is usually the primary motivation behind exposing oneself to the sun for extended periods of time and is often a contributing factor to skin cancer later in life.

“Tanning to the skin is no different than cigarette smoke is to the lining of the lungs,” said Glen Bowen, a dermatologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Some U students, like senior Katie Brown, find ways to get a nice tan without damaging their skin.

“I go spray tanning because skin cancer runs in my family,” Brown said.

“Besides avoiding tanning, students can also use sunscreen, and keep fully clothed.”

“Almost no one uses sunscreen correctly,” said Bowen. He said people should pre-apply and then re-apply their sunscreen.

Sunscreen takes about 30 minutes to start working after it is applied. So people should put on sunscreen a half hour before they go out in the sun.

Sunscreen also needs to be reapplied because it’s gone in two hours, even the sunscreens that say they last longer then that. Even if the sunscreen is not gone it has often been diluted by water lost through the skin, and becomes less effective with time, Bowen said.

Melanoma, the most serious of all skin cancers, is most likely to develop in places that have had severe peeling burns. Most of the melanoma Bowen treats is found on places that are usually covered-like backs and shoulders-but even a few bad burns on these areas can be enough to trigger melanoma.

Bowen attributes Utah’s high rate of melanoma to the high elevation, as well as its genetic history.

As the elevation increases, o-zone thins out, offering skin less protection from ultra violet radiation. For every 1,000-foot increase, seven percent of UV filtration is lost, Bowen said.

Another factor is genetics. Many Utahns can trace their roots back to a Northern European country. The people of these Scandinavian countries usually had pale skin and did not see much sun. Now their Utah descendents burn because they are exposed to a lot more sun, but still have the very pale skin, Bowen said.

But if the problem is caught early, skin cancer patients have a very good chance at recovery. To catch skin cancer early, Bowen recommends that people check for moles that “don’t belong in the neighborhood”-moles that look weird when compared to the rest of the moles in that area.

Another sign of skin cancer is a sore that just won’t heal. Bowen warns that some patients thought they just had an annoying pimple when it was really melanoma.

[email protected]

How to Protect Yourself from the Sun

Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.

Reapply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors, even on cloudy days.

Wear protective, tightly woven clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt and pants.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when outdoors.

Stay in the shade whenever possible.

Avoid reflective surfaces, which can reflect up to 85 percent of the sun’s damaging rays.

Protect children.

Minimize sun exposure and apply sunscreen to children aged 6 months and older.

If you shadow is shorter than you are, you’re likely to sunburn.

Avoid tanning beds.

Source: American Academy of Dermatology