It seems like everybody’s got a story about that “one bad burn” – the time you fell asleep next to the pool and tattooed a white handprint on your lobster-red chest, or forgot to pack the sunscreen while hiking a Colorado 14er. As you know, sunburn increases your chance of developing melanoma and other skin cancers. But what about just one bad burn? And what can you do about it now?
“We’re still waiting for a definitive one-sunburn study to show us exactly how much melanoma risk increases with one blistering burn, but to the best of our knowledge, it seems like the answer is about 50 percent. One bad burn as a child makes you half-again more likely to develop melanoma as an adult,” says Neil Box, PhD, investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at the CU School of Medicine. Dr. Box is also president of the Colorado Melanoma Foundation.
This year, about 250,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma and 60,000 people will die from this most dangerous form of skin cancer. While the increased risk accompanying one bad burn is still imprecise, studies show that the overall lifetime risk of developing melanoma climbs 80 percent with 5 blistering burns in childhood.
“One takeaway is that if you’re a parent or camp counselor, it really is important to prevent children in your care from getting burned – five times or even once. You literally have the power to save lives,” Box says.
If you could go back to that day by the pool or that hike up Mt. Evans, you would lather on the SPF or put on a shirt. But you can’t. What’s done is done. Even, so what you do to protect yourself from the sun continues to matter.
“While melanoma is created by severe, blistering burns, other forms of skin cancer depend on gentler UV accumulation over time,” Box says. “Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are like pouring water into a pitcher until it eventually overflows. Even as an adult, you can make the decision to protect yourself from the sun – to stop pouring UV radiation into that pitcher.”
For example, a study of 109,000 nurses showed that people in the highest category of sun exposure as adults had about 2.5 times the chance of developing basal and squamous cell carcinomas as adults with less sun exposure.
“It’s never too early or too late to start protecting yourself and your loved ones from the sun,” Box says.