1 in 5 Americans Will Get Skin Cancer. Will It Be You?

Melanoma, the deadliest form, increasingly strikes younger adults. Here’s how to cut your risk.

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You know you've reached the zenith of pop culture zaniness when Saturday Night Live parodies you. That's exactly what happened to Patricia Krentcil, the overly bronzed New Jersey mom facing second-degree child endangerment charges for allegedly allowing her then five-year-old daughter into a tanning booth. Audiences across America may have laughed at an Oompa-Loompa orange Kristin Wiig spoofing the infamous "Tanning Mom," but doctors say that this is no laughing matter.

A new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reveals that 50 percent of young adults ages 18 through 29 say they've had at least one sunburn in the past year. "A sunburn is a form of sickness or poisoning," says Cynthia Bailey, a dermatologist practicing in Sebastopol, Calif. "Both a sunburn and a suntan indicate that ultraviolet rays have caused free radicals to form within the skin and DNA damage has occurred." And this, in turn, can lead to skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States.

[See: In Pictures: 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100]

Sun seekers aren't the only ones putting themselves at risk. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that some 28 million Americans tan indoors each year, and the age of frequent users is getting younger and younger. A study also conducted by the CDC and NCI found that nearly a third of white women ages 18 to 21 regularly use tanning beds, averaging about 28 visits in 2010. "Ultraviolet radiation from tanning devices [and the sun] is just as carcinogenic to humans as tobacco smoking," says Delphine Lee, a dermatologist and director of translational immunology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. "Studies found a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who had been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning before the age of 35."

Mention melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and John McCain might come to mind— the 75-year-old senator who has endured numerous removals of melanoma from his upper body and face. Recent studies, though, show that it's not an older person's disease. Rather than the likes of McCain, people should really remember reggae musician Bob Marley, who died at age 36 from a metastatic melanoma found on his toe. A Mayo Clinic survey of patients published in April revealed that for people under 40, incidences of melanoma have increased eightfold among women and fourfold among men from 1979 to 2009. This rise in cases may be due to the popularity of indoor tanning, researchers speculate. "Fifteen to 30 minutes in a tanning booth is equal to an entire day at the beach, and the UV [rays] absorbed during a session is 20 times stronger than the rays of the sun," says Howard Murad, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California--Los Angeles.

So why do people keep tanning? Surely the thought of thinning skin, fine lines and wrinkles, liver spots, skin rashes from the interaction between UV rays and certain medications, aggravation of autoimmune diseases, and cataracts—not to mention cancers of the eye and skin—would deter most folks. New research published in the May issue of Addiction Biology suggests that for some people, tanning is not that easy to resist.

Scientists measured the brain activity and blood flow of study participants subjected to ultraviolet radiation in a tanning bed. What they discovered was that the UV rays stimulated several parts of the brain involved in addiction. Quite simply, tanning could be just as habit-forming as drugs or alcohol. Despite all the awareness of the health hazards of tanning, it appears that some people just can't say no when they should.

The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that more than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, and one person dies from melanoma every hour. "It would be unrealistic to expect the average person not to get some color by the end of the summer," says Lawrence Mark, a dermatologist at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. "But there is always some risk with tanning. The question is whether the benefit is worth the risk."