It’s spring break, and you’re in college. You and your roommates are on the way to the beach in Florida, where you’ve decided to spend a week “tanning” and relaxing. After eagerly spreading out towels and reaching for the cooler packed with beer bottles, you put on a hat and start reading a book, but at some point you fall asleep under the noontime sun. One thing: You forgot to put on sunscreen.
Hours later, you don’t feel the burn yet. Maybe when you touch your exposed stomach, you’ll see a patch of white appear amidst the pink. But the burning sets in once dusk falls and you’re back inside in the air conditioning. Looking at yourself in the mirror, you realize with horror that you’re red as a lobster. Your skin feels taut and dry — and any movement, or touch, is painful.
That night, while your roommates are playing beer pong, you’re lying on your stomach on the bed smothered in aloe vera, but this is only temporary relief. The fact is, this is the severest burn you’ve ever experienced. And studies say that each severe sunburn can up your risk for developing skin cancer later in life significantly. One 2014 study found that teens who had serious sunburns might increase their risk of skin cancer by up to 80 percent.
Now, a new study finds that if you have blue eyes or red hair, you may be particularly vulnerable to this risk. The genes linked to blue eyes and red hair — which might cause people to develop moles or freckles, often precursors to melanoma — put these people at a higher risk. The study, completed at the University of Colorado, examined DNA samples from 477 white children aged 6-10. The research team also analyzed information about the children’s exposure to sun. They found that the number of moles and freckles, as well as sunburns and sun exposure, increased each year. The more sun the kids got, the more freckles they developed. Kids with blue eyes — who had the gene variant tied to blue eyes — ended up being more vulnerable to developing moles than those without the gene.
“It seems that there are specific behaviors that predispose kids to the formations of more moles,” Neil Box, an assistant professor in the department of dermatology at the University of Colorado, said.
Blue eyes are essentially nearly devoid of melanin, a type of pigment that colors the skin, eyes, and hair. Skin and eyes with less melanin are not as protected from the sun’s UV radiation, making pale, blue-eyed, blonde-haired kids more likely to get sunburnt and develop skin cancer.
The study overall concludes that there is “a complex interaction between genes and sun exposure,” Box said. “We are beginning to work out how our genes interact with our environment. This will lead to the identification of high-risk groups and we will, potentially, come up with different guidelines for people on how they should behave based on their genetics.” It’s important to note that not all freckles and moles mean you will develop skin cancer. Be aware of your moles and get them checked regularly just in case they begin to look different and change colors. In addition, wear sunscreen, hats, and stay out of the sun between the hours of 10am and 3pm.
“We think if you can modify behaviors related to sun exposure in children, it will probably make a difference for their well-being in later life with respect to melanoma,” Box said.