The Rising Threat of Skin Cancer in Millennials & Gen Z

July 19, 2023

Skin Cancer in Millennials and Gen Z - group of Gen Z friends smiling on a sunny day

Millennials and Gen Z have grown up with a wealth of online information regarding makeup and skincare; however, there’s one crucial area many millennials and Gen Zs fail to prioritize – sun protection. A recent survey from the American Academy of Dermatology revealed that more than 70% of Gen Z respondents don’t understand the skin cancer risks associated with sunburns, and nearly 60% believe in sun tanning myths, like the idea that base tans are safe. According to Dr. Valerie Truong of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Dallas and Plano, Texas, “Sun exposure causes many skin health issues and negatively impacts the skin’s appearance. There is no such thing as “safe” sun exposure. Every time our skin is exposed to sunlight, there is a risk of creating irreversible damage that accelerates aging and can lead to skin cancer. This risk of developing skin cancer increases exponentially after every sunburn, and the negative effects of sun damage are cumulative. That means your lifetime of fun in the sun can cause serious health concerns later. No matter your age or skin tone, sun protection is an essential part of your skincare routine.” In this blog, Dr. Truong talks about the rising skin cancer rates in millennials and Gen Z, debunks some common sun protection myths, and provides a roadmap for healthy and beautiful skin now and in the future.

Unmasking the Alarming Increase in Melanoma in Young Adults

In recent years, the number of cases of skin cancer in young adults has risen dramatically. This includes all forms of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The American Academy of Dermatology study had some alarming results that may tell us why cancer cases are on the rise. Some of the most startling statistics from the study include:

  • 71% didn’t know that sunburns increased the risk of skin cancer
  • 59% believed myths like “base tans are healthy”
  • 30% said they would rather tan and look great now even if they didn’t look as good later
  • 20% prioritized tanning over cancer prevention

The Gender Gap: Skin Cancer Rates in Male vs. Female in Millennials and Gen Z

According to Dr. Truong, “This most recent survey revealed that 30% of women and 23% of men never use sunscreen. 47% of women understood that sun exposure was associated with skin cancer compared with just 33% of men. Compared to previous surveys, women remain more likely to seek treatment for skin cancer in the early stages.

“Women often feel more pressured to achieve a specific appearance. If young women believe that they’re too pale, they may prioritize getting a tan over protecting their health. If achieving the look of a tan is what truly matters, there are numerous safe alternatives to tanning that can help achieve a sun-kissed glow.”

Busting Sun Exposure Myths: What Millennials and Gen Z Need to Know About Tanning

Another surprising revelation from the survey results is just how many young adults believe myths about sun exposure and skin cancer, especially when it comes to tanning. Below, Dr. Truong debunks some of those common myths.

Myth 1 – Tanning beds are safer than sun exposure.

Fact – Tanning bed use dramatically increases the risk for all forms of skin cancer, and this risk increases with each use.

Myth 2 – Base tans protect against sun damage.

Fact – The initial exposure that leads to the tan is actually a form of sun damage that triggers the skin to produce more melanin. Even with a base tan, you are still at risk for sunburns and further sun damage.

Myth 3 – You need sun exposure for vitamin D.

Fact – The majority of people can get their vitamin D from nutritional supplements and vitamin D-fortified foods.

Myth 4 – Tanning beds can be used to improve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Fact – Those who struggle with SAD during the cold, dark winter months can get a kind of euphoric effect from tanning. While it may feel good in the moment, the effects are temporary. Working with a mental health professional to develop coping strategies is a much safer and longer-lasting solution.

The Hidden Dangers of Sunbathing and Indoor Tanning

Any amount of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays increases the risk of developing skin cancer. While skin cancer may be the most serious risk associated with sunbathing and indoor tanning, there are other concerns, including:

  • Sunburns – Dr. Truong says, “While sunburns usually heal on their own with aloe and other home remedies, even one sunburn dramatically increases the risk for skin cancer. Every once in a while, I encounter patients who have been hospitalized for more serious sunburns.”
  • Fine lines and wrinkles – free radicals from sun exposure damage collagen and elastin, which causes textural changes in the form of both deep wrinkles and fine lines.
  • Hyperpigmentation – dark spots and uneven skin tone often occur as a result of chronic sun exposure.

Why SPF Matters: Sunscreen Tips for Millennials and Gen Z

When it comes to sunscreen, Dr. Truong says, “Any sunscreen is better than none, but not all sunscreens are created equal. There are some things you need to look for when choosing a sunscreen. First, check the SPF.  That stands for sun protection factor. It tells you how strong the sunscreen is. You should also look for the words ‘broad-spectrum.’ That means the sunscreen offers UV protection against both UVA and UVB rays. I recommend a physical sunscreen over a chemical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens are often easier to apply and leave less filmy residue, but the long-term effects of the chemicals aren’t clear. Physical sunscreens have come a long way, and the ingredients are safer.”

If you’re looking for a good sunscreen for everyday use, find out more about ALASTIN Skincare HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36, Neutrogena Mineral Ultra Sheer, or ISDIN Eryfotona Ageless SPF 50.  These are good sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays. It’s safe for all skin types, and the unique formula even leads to a generally better skin tone and texture.

Protective Clothing: Your Second Line of Defense Against Sun Damage

In addition to sunscreen, your clothing can also protect you. The warm spring and summer months when most people spend time outdoors mean greater skin cancer risk as people often wear clothing with less coverage, such as shorts, t-shirts, dresses, and bathing suits. When you’re planning to be outdoors for an extended period of time, consider covering up with long-sleeved shirts, pants, hats, scarves, or other protective clothing. Sun-protective clothing is made from fabrics designed specifically to block out UV rays. These protective garments reduce the risk of skin damage and can also be a good option, especially if you’re outdoors often or for an extended period.

Screening for Skin Cancer: The Role of Regular Checkups in Early Detection

Annual skin cancer screenings with a board-certified dermatologist are important in maintaining skin health. Your dermatologist can examine your skin for early warning signs of skin cancer. According to Dr. Truong, “As a rule of thumb, the earlier the skin cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat. I recommend self-skin checks once every few months and seeing your dermatologist at least once a year.”

Braving the Battle: Personal Stories of Millennials and Gen Z with Skin Cancer

Pam / Millennial: When I was in high school, it was really cool to go tanning, especially before formal dances. All my friends went tanning for weeks leading up to these events, and I’m so pale-skinned, I didn’t want to be left out. I had to tan more often to get anywhere near the results some of my friends saw. I regret it now. I developed skin cancer in my late twenties. Between the tanning in my teen years, my inconsistent sunscreen use, and light skin, I was doomed. Luckily, I saw a dermatologist for a consultation about another skin concern. During that consultation, he noticed a concerning mole. It turned out to be melanoma. I was extremely fortunate to have received early treatment. I made a full recovery, but I hope other people my age know there’s a real risk associated with tanning and skipping sunscreen. I never leave home without my sunscreen these days.

Madison / Gen Z: I grew up believing that my darker complexion meant I wouldn’t get sunburns, and that meant I wouldn’t get skin cancer. I had no idea how many different forms of skin cancer exist and how often people of color can actually develop skin cancer. I noticed a dark spot on one of my nails a few years back. I thought it was just a bruise, but it didn’t heal. After a few weeks, I schedule an appointment with my doctor. It turned out to be skin cancer. I lost my nail and a small portion of my finger to remove the cancer cells, but I was still very lucky. The cancer hadn’t spread, and I’ve made a full recovery.

Sam / Millennial: I work outdoors, and I’ve always been terrible about wearing hats or sunglasses. I didn’t even realize that there was a form of melanoma that impacts the eyes until I was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. The surgeons were able to save my eye, but I know how lucky I was.

Kate / Gen Z: I always thought that skin cancer started in moles. I developed this sore on my lip, and skin cancer didn’t even cross my mind. I thought it was a cold sore. I went to the doctor because it didn’t heal with over-the-counter cold sore medication. I was shocked when they said skin cancer. I’m still going through treatments, but I’m hopeful to make a full recovery.

Staying Sun-Safe: An Urgent Call to Millennials and Gen Z

When it comes to staying sun-safe, Dr. Truong urges, “Start taking your sun protection seriously now. That means wearing sunscreen every day. Whether it’s warm or cold sunny or cloudy, sunscreen is an essential step in your skincare routine. Limit your time outdoors and skip tanning beds altogether. No matter how much you like the look of tan skin, it’s truly never worth the risk.”

Learn More from Your Dermatologist

If you’re interested in scheduling an annual skin cancer screening or just want to talk with a professional about your skincare routine, take a few moments to complete our online appointment request form. Once the U.S. Dermatology Partners location near you receives your scheduling request, they’ll reach out to answer your questions and finalize your appointment details.

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