People under 35 years old are ignoring warnings about sun exposure and skin cancer because they believe tanning makes people more attractive.
An estimated 10 million commercially insured Americans are living with skin cancer, up from 9 million last year, reports the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA).
And of all the generations, millennials are more likely to engage in risky behavior in order to get a tan, according to a BCBSA survey. The millennial findings show:
- 58 percent think a tan makes a person more attractive
- 53 percent believe a tan makes a person look healthy
- 31 percent use tanning beds to get a baseline tan
“It’s well documented that millennials are a lifestyle-oriented generation. In general, they choose lifestyle over other areas of life,” Dr. Larisa Geskin, director of the Comprehensive Skin Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told Healthline. “I think [this behavior] is really driven by the desire to seize the moment and enjoy their life.”
Geskin’s fellow Megan Trager, medical student at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons who researches sun exposure, skin damage, and vitamin D deficiency, elaborates.
“We think that millennials are more risk-seeking than other generations and they don’t necessarily think about the consequences of their decisions, but rather they are in the moment and do things for pleasure. So being in the sun is something they enjoy in the moment rather than thinking about the risks of skin cancer down the line,” Trager said.
Trager also points to a change in beauty standards over the past hundred years.
“Favoring a pale complexion associated with beauty and class has shifted over the past hundred years or so under influences from the medical community and media,” Trager told Healthline.
However, she adds that risk-seeking behaviors of millennials play a part, too.
Still, another factor may be lack of preventive care, says Dr. Vincent Nelson, vice president of medical affairs for BCBSA.
Nelson says an earlier report from the organization found that millennials are less healthy than Generation X were at the same age, and that 1 in 3 millennials don’t have a primary care physician and are less likely to seek preventive care on a regular basis.
“Based on these findings, we’re seeing that millennials are not seeking preventative care and it’s not only having an effect on their immediate health, but will significantly impact their long-term health as well,” Nelson told Healthline. “With millennials on track to become the largest generation in the near future, it’s critical that they’re taking their health maintenance seriously. Our plan is to address this issue now to ensure millennials, and all Americans, take a proactive role in maintaining their health and well-being.”
1. Wear sunscreen
The American Cancer Society recommends using sunscreen with broad spectrum protection against both long wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short wave ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, and with sun protection factor (SPF) values of 30 or higher.
Trager and Geskin suggest mineral sunscreen that contains at least 20 percent zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
“If you apply a lot of chemical sunblock, they can be harmful and influence your endocrine system. Occasional use is OK, but we do not recommend wearing it all the time. Sunblock with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide reflect the light rather than absorb it,” said Geskin.
She and Trager say keep the following in mind when applying sunscreen:
- Put it on before going outside because it takes about 15 minutes for sunscreen to be absorbed into the skin.
- Most people need about an ounce — or a shot glass full — of sunscreen to fully cover their body.
- Ask someone to apply sunscreen on areas you can’t reach, such as your back.
- Reapply every two hours.
2. Wear protective clothing
In addition to wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses, wearing protective attire, such as long-sleeved shirts and pants, is a good idea. There are also clothes made to protect against UV exposure. These clothes have labels listing the UV protection factor (UPF) value, which identifies the level of protection the garment provides from the sun’s UV rays, on a scale from 15 to 50 or higher. As with sunscreen and SPF, the higher the UPF on clothing, the higher the protection from UV rays.
3. Take shade and avoid hot parts of the day
The hottest parts of the day tend to be between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so staying indoors during that time can help avoid sun damage. However, Geskin says this doesn’t mean you need to be restricted to the indoors.
“We tell people to live their life to the fullest, but they need to ensure all means to protect themselves. If people are active outdoors, we recommend all three things for sun protection: sunblock, sun protective clothing, and shade,” she said.
4. Stay away from tanning beds
Exposure to artificial sources of UV rays, such as those from indoor tanning, can cause skin cancer, with some researchers estimating that indoor tanning may cause upward of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States each year.
Millennials should particularly take note, says Nelson.
“Thirty-one percent of millennials use tanning beds to get a baseline tan, when the reality is that base tans do not help avoid sunburn or provide any additional sun protection,” Nelson said. “Quite simply, the best way to protect your skin from UV damage is to limit sun exposure, regularly use sunscreen, and forget the tanning bed.”
If you’re concerned about not getting enough vitamin D, the
Foods are also a way to sustain ideal levels without risking skin damage.
“A limited group of foods, such as salmon, swordfish, mushrooms, and egg yolks, are sufficient sources of vitamin D,” Nelson said. “For those that don’t like or can’t eat those foods, quality control-tested supplements and multivitamins are another option to attain the benefits of vitamin D.”
“Because the recommended daily intake varies among physicians and organizations, individuals should consult a medical professional to determine their appropriate dosage.” Nelson said.
If you’re set on darkening the color of your skin, Trager says to avoid UV radiation by using self-tanners, which include spray tan and spray lotion.
These products contain the ingredient dihydroxyacetone, which chemically reacts with the amino acids in the dead layer of the skin’s surface to temporarily darken the skin.
“This is a good alternative, but we want millennials to know that tan skin isn’t the most important for beauty standards. Pale skin is also beautiful,” said Trager.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.