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Sunburns Aren't Just a White-People Problem

And melanoma is more deadly in people of color.
Image: FGorgun / Getty

A new study conducted in everyone's preferred spring break destination shows that young people who identify as nonwhite are prone to getting sunburned. This is a bad scene considering that regular burns greatly increase risk of skin cancer. While melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, is more common in caucasians, it's more deadly in people of color.

Sergey Arutyunyan, an osteopathic resident at Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, along with his co-authors, surveyed a group of adults and was surprised to see a correlation between young adults who identify as nonwhite and instances of painful or red sunburn. Another researcher on the team, Tracy Favreau, said in a press release that this might come from the fact that young people of color are lax when it comes to wearing sunscreen. Her research shows that just because your melanin is poppin' doesn't mean you're invincible to sunburn and, by extension, its potentially harmful side effects.

The study identified a variety of other rather unexpected predictors of sunburn, like being outside for less than an hour when the sun is most intense (since it's easy to justify not applying sunscreen if you're only going out briefly) and having had a full-body skin exam (the researchers speculated that being cleared by a dermatologist might make people feel overconfident and therefore less concerned about keeping up a strict anti-sunburn regimen). Further, people seemed to go ahead and get scorched even if they had a self-reported sensitivity to the sun, or a personal or familial history of skin cancer—possibly because they have a fatalistic attitude about the inevitability of skin damage or skin cancer.

Between 2002 and 2011, the number of adults (of all races) treated for skin cancer increased from 3.4 million to 4.9 million; this meant that money spent on treatment skyrocketed from $3.6 billion to $8.1 billion. For people between 15 and 29, skin cancer is the second most common type of cancer.

Arutyunyan said that he wants to find better ways to explain the dangers of sun damage; he suggests that an app with some sort of reward system could be effective in educating younger adults. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the cause of 86 percent of melanoma cases, and your chances of developing it nearly doubles if you have a history of sunburn. The research highlights attitudinal factors that affect these numbers; if people were more wary of the risks, they might be more preventable.