Dermatologist on body image and skin cancer

03 September 2014

The number of people admitted to hospital for skin cancer treatment rose by nearly a third in five years, official figures reveal, sparking concerns over young peoples’ lack of awareness of the dangers of tanning and burning.

Malignant melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, yet young people continue to prioritise fashion and attractiveness over long-term health risks, highlighting fears over societal pressures to look tanned.

Commenting on the key contributions to the rise in incidences of the cancer, Dr Raj Mallipeddi, Consultant Dermatologist at The Lister Hospital, London says, "The latest Public Health England statistics reporting a rapid growth in rates of skin cancer comes as no surprise. The increase in foreign travel, the influence of our image-conscious society with the trend of being tanned are all key factors in fueling the rise.

"Long term skin cancer risk increases with sun exposure at a younger age and so being aware and cautious matters even more for children, teenagers and even people in their 20s. Paradoxically even though we must focus on pushing the message to them, at this age people are thinking less about the long-term and more about the here-and-now, and this is especially detrimental when the priority may be to appear tanned. When people do start to wise-up to the risks in their 40s and 50s, much of the damage has been done. There tends to be huge lag period between the effects of cumulative sun exposure and the development of skin cancer – with decades of time between the cause and the development - and it is for this reason that skin cancer awareness must start at a young age.

Dr Richard Barlow, Consultant Dermatologist at The Lister Hospital, London, comments on the disconnect between societal views of beauty and health: “Sun exposure, like smoking, accelerates signs of ageing. Nevertheless, people with poorly pigmented skin continue to associate a tan with health and beauty.

“Cheap air travel and sunbeds have made these more accessible to more people. Public health campaigns, most notably in Australia ("slip, slap, slop") can change awareness of sun damage and can change behaviour. In this country, these concerns should be balanced by the need for moderate sun exposure - perhaps not to the face - in order to maintain vitamin D levels.

Dr Mallipeddi continues, "It is also important to remember that in the detection of skin cancer, it is not just about examining moles, which is what most people tend to focus on, but also to be aware of the signs of non-melanoma skin cancer. Even though non-melanoma is less serious with regard to mortality, it is far more common than melanoma, especially as you get older. Unlike classic melanoma which appears as a dark or irregular mole, non-melanoma skin cancer can be just a red, scaly patch or ulcer on the skin."

Dr Barlow continues, “Fair skinned populations living at low latitudes experience a high incidence of many forms of skin cancer, predominantly basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and, most dangerously, of melanoma. The former two are likely to reflect cumulative sun exposure and the third is most likely caused by episodes of sunburn.”

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