Surgeon General Boris Lushniak announced this week growing concern for melanoma’s alarming rise in the United States, as skin cancer rates have nearly tripled over the last 30 years. Lushniak cites the explosion of indoor tanning as a major cause for what he calls a “major public health concern.”
Ultraviolet radiation is a natural component of the sun’s rays, which pose their greatest threat during the summer months. With the advent of tanning beds, however, we Americans have come to expect a year-round bronze, and it’s sending us to early graves, Lushniak says. Not only are skin cancer rates increasing year after year; they’re increasing as other cancer rates are falling, posing a compelling question to the American public: What are we doing about it?
The answer, in short, is simple. We keep on tanning. “Certainly, this time of year, we’re in the midst of this vacation season,” Lushniak told The Washington Post prior to the report’s release. “Knowing that as August comes around, it’s the last big spurt of people heading to the beach, people spending time having that potential exposure to ultraviolet radiation. We thought now was a really good time to get the message out.”
To Lushniak’s mind, the mere fact melanoma is increasing in prevalence carries more weight than the possible explanations for the trend. Several things could be happening in tandem, he said, such as boons in the indoor tanning market, increased outdoor activities, or even less frequent sunscreen exposure. “From our perspective, the real concern is that this is an increase, and we need to do something about it.”
Another factor could also be playing a role, though Lushniak did not mention it explicitly. While Europe and Canada have been churning out new sunscreen formulas for much of the product’s history, in the United States no changes have been made to the recipe for sunscreen for the last decade and a half. Key ingredients, such as ecamsule and amiloxate, already appear in spades in many foreign sunscreen brands. But due to regulatory stopgaps and legal definitions (sunscreen is considered a cosmetic abroad, while an over-the-counter drug here), American sunscreen research is often viewed as too light to make conclusive claims.
On the other hand, we are also to blame. We are the ones seeking out the tanned skin, after all — installing industrial beds in private residences to mimic what the sun freely provides, but at a level far more intense. We may look healthy, experts say, but the truth is we’re far from vitality. “Although some people think that a tan gives them a ‘healthy’ glow, any tan is a sign of skin damage,” said Sharon Miller, and FDA scientist and expert on UV radiation and tanning, in a recent FDA release.
Here Miller points to a social norm that is decidedly tough to crack, and in his recent interview with The Post, Lushniak echoed her concern. Social custom has always guided people’s lifestyle with an equal, if greater, force compared to personal health concerns. People smoked cigarettes for decades (and still do) in large part because they knew people who smoked and wanted to synchronize their breaks together. Eating follows the same pattern; people tend to eat more when other people eat more.
The trick, Lushniak says, is to divorce being tan with being healthy — to quit seeing olive-toned skin as a vital sign. Their vitamin D levels may be somewhat higher, but even greater is their risk of joining the more than 60,000 people who die each year as the result of melanomas of the skin. “We’re really talking about a tragic disease here, something that really affects the young,” Lushniak said. “That’s something, from a public health perspective, we have to do something about.”