May is National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. In Missouri, the topic even gained the attention of state legislators who considered a law (HB 1475) that would require in-person parental consent before anyone younger than 17 could use a tanning bed.

Dr. Lynn Cornelius, chief of the division of dermatology and a specialist in skin cancer with Washington University Physicians, visited Jefferson City in support of HB 1475. “It’s important to know that the World Health Organization has a committee called the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and IARC’s job is to look at the carcinogenicity of different types of compounds and radiation. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as well as from UV-emitting tanning devices, is in its ‘Group 1’ category, which is as bad as it gets for being carcinogenic,” she says.

Tanning beds, some of which feature high-pressure UVA lamps, have been shown to significantly increase risk of melanoma of the skin and eye. Among the types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most insidious because of its ability to spread to lymph nodes and organs.

“We know that young adult women have had a drastic increase in the incidence of melanoma, and many studies have shown that the more individuals utilize tanning beds, the more they have an increased incidence,” Cornelius says. “For people who have used tanning beds more than 50 times, there’s a 300 percent increase.”

With more than a million people using tanning beds each day and 70 percent of those being women younger than 30, Cornelius says the proposed legislation is one way to help protect a vulnerable population. “It’s been eye-opening to me because you feel like this is a nobrainer— we’re protecting our kids,” she says. “Both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Pediatrics are very strong opponents of anyone under 18 using a tanning bed.”

Assuming that you and your children avoid tanning beds, there are other steps you should take to reduce risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer, with sunscreen being the most obvious form of protection.

To help consumers make sense of sunscreen labels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is enacting new regulations that will require sunscreen to be labeled like other over-the-counter medications. Companies will have to present data that proves the product’s effectiveness prior to making specific claims. According to the FDA, manufacturers cannot make claims that sunscreens are ‘waterproof’ or ‘sweatproof,’ or identify their products as ‘sunblocks.’ Also, sunscreens cannot claim protection immediately on application or protection for more than two hours without reapplication, unless they submit data and get approval from FDA.

Even labeled clearly, sunscreen’s effectiveness depends, in part, on how it’s used. “In order to get the SPF level advertised on any bottle of sunscreen, you must apply the correct ‘dose,’ ” notes Dr. Mary Noel George a dermatologist on staff at SSM DePaul Health Center. “For the face, that means a tablespoon of sunscreen and for the body, a full ounce (or one shot glass full). This should be reapplied every two hours when outside, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. You should apply sunscreen daily to all areas of skin that are exposed.”

Yet sunscreen isn’t the only consideration in the quest to protect skin from sun damage. “Sunscreen alone cannot fully protect you from UV radiation,” says Dr. Michelle Tarbox, a SLUCare dermatologist. “Just like a football team has many different members in its defense (linebackers, defensive tackles and defensive ends), you need several different types of sun protection to defend you from UV radiation. As with a successful football defense, each member of the team contributes a particular strength to defend the quarterback (that’s you) against the opposing team (UV radiation). Sunscreen can be your linebacker.”

Tarbox sums up: “The take-home point here is prevention and early detection. Use daily sun protection in the form of sunscreen, sun-protective clothing and sun smarts (avoiding the most intense hours of sunlight, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or when your shadow is shorter than you are). You need to get that defensive team out there working for you.”