Despite repeated health warnings about the dangers of sun exposure that are backed by research proving that as few as five sunburns doubles a person's risk of developing skin cancer, Americans are still getting sunburned.
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported that 39 percent of respondents of a national survey conducted in 2003 had at least one sunburn in the previous 12 months, a 22 percent increase since 1999. However, this percentage rose dramatically as income and education levels increased and the age of respondents decreased.
Dermatologist Joel M. Gelfand, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadephia and co-author of the report "The epidemiology of sunburn in the U.S. population in 2003," studied the prevalence of and risk factors for sunburn in the United States using the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) 2003 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS). A random sample of 207,776 respondents aged 18 or older provided data for the population-based survey, with the main outcome measure being any report of sunburn within the last 12 months. The variables which predicted sunburn included sex, age, income, education, employment status, race, recent physician care, and behavior factors such as drinking and smoking.
The study found that sunburn prevalence was greatest in respondents 18 to 24 years old, with 61 percent reporting at least one sunburn in the past year. When income and educational levels were examined, the study showed that individuals in the highest income strata (equal to or greater than $50,000) were more likely to report sunburn than those in the lowest income strata (less than $20,000) - 47 percent vs. 28 percent, respectively. In addition, respondents with a college degree reported a higher sunburn incidence than those without a high school degree - 43 percent vs. 25 percent, respectively.
"Our research confirms previous findings that younger adults continue to be the group most likely to get sunburned and, as a result, are at an increased risk for developing future skin cancers," said Dr. Gelfand. "The increased number of sunburns among people with the highest incomes could be attributed to their ability to travel to tropical destinations more often than those with a lower income. As we know, people shouldn't 'take a break' from practicing proper sun protection just because they are on vacation."
Other variables that had a high correlation to increased sunburns included gender, employment status and alcohol use. Overall, 44 percent of male respondents reported at least one sunburn compared with 34 percent of female respondents. When examining employment status, students were nearly twice as likely to sunburn as those who were unemployed (63 percent vs. 33 percent, respectively). In addition, 47 percent of employed respondents reported being sunburned.
Alcohol use continues to be associated with a higher incidence of sunburn, as reported in an earlier study that found a correlation between alcohol use and an increased rate of more severe sunburns among beachgoers. The study found that 56 percent of binge drinkers, defined as people who have had five or more drinks in one night within the past 30 days, reported being sunburned compared to only 35 percent of respondents who did not engage in binge drinking.
"Our finding of 39 percent sunburn prevalence in the general population is significant because there have been enhanced education efforts during this time period," added Dr. Gelfand. "Sunburns are dangerous and everyone should take proper measures to protect against them. Sunburns also exact a financial tool on society. Every year, sunburns have been shown to cost employers millions of dollars in lost wages from employees taking sick time as a result of their painful skin injury - which pales in comparison to the billions of dollars spent treating skin cancers that could have been prevented."
The Academy encourages people to Be Sun SmartSM when outdoors by protecting themselves from the harmful rays of the sun.
• Generously apply sunscreen using a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 that provides broad-spectrum protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.
• Wear protective clothing.
• Seek shade.
• Use extra caution near water, snow and sand.
• Protect children from sun exposure by applying sunscreen.
• Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist.
It is estimated that more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. At current rates, 1 in 5 Americans will develop some form of skin cancer during their lifetime, and five or more sunburns doubles a person's risk of developing skin cancer.