Blistering Sunburns Before Age 20 Increase Cancer Risk By 80%

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sunburnIllustrated By Gabriela Alford.
When I was little, my mother was a passionate advocate for a seemingly endless number of preventative health measures — but she was particularly authoritarian about sunscreen. Of course, being a child, I found few things as annoying as regular reapplications of Banana Boat. Looking back, though, I'm eternally grateful; I know the California sun would have wreaked havoc on my skin were it not for my mother's heavy hand with the SPF.

A study published last week in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention made me want to call up Mom and thank her. Researchers from the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University spent 20 years collecting data on skin cancer rates among 108,916 Caucasian female nurses located in 14 different states. Every two years, the researchers checked in with each subject about any current skin cancer diagnoses as well as family history, tanning habits, and sunscreen use.

After adjusting for genetic, location-based, and activity-based risk factors, the research team found that those who reported at least five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 were 80% more likely to develop melanoma in adulthood than those without a history of serious burns. In addition, the women with five-plus adolescent burns had a 68% higher risk for non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) — which are easier to treat with simple surgical procedures and are less likely than melanoma to spread to other parts of the body.

Of course, there's absolutely nothing any of us can do about our past sunscreen sins. But, what about the effects of sun exposure in adulthood? The study found that, while high cumulative UV exposure was linked to increased risk of both BCC and SCC, no such link was found with melanoma. Still, an overwhelming amount of research paints a pretty scary picture of what it means to shirk your sunblock duties.

Oh, hey, what's this? A guide to the best sunscreens ever? How did that get there? How convenient.