Researchers from two universities in Utah have a warning for students planning to hit the slopes or play in the snow without sunscreen: You could greatly increase your risk of skin cancer.
A survey of students by Brigham Young University College of Nursing in Provo found that only 9% use sunscreen. They also found students' use of tanning beds surges in winter, especially among men.
Those two factors, combined with increased exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays reflecting off snow and ice, means winter activities can be just as devastating to skin as summer ones, researchers said.
"The worst sunburn I ever got was when I went skiing and didn't put on sunscreen," said senior study author Katreena Merrill, an associate professor of nursing. "Many people think they will be fine in the winter, but it's just as important to protect yourself in the winter sun as it is the summer sun."
Past studies have shown that more than 50% of college students use tanning beds. Using tanning beds before age 35 increases a person's risk of melanoma by 75%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Tanning beds are very purposefully exposing your skin to potential cancer," Merrill said. "UV radiation comes from the sun and artificially from tanning beds. It penetrates through glass and clouds, damaging the cell's DNA and aging skin."
About 20% of Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Having five or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined, according to the study.
Researchers also analyzed protective behaviors by phenotypic risk, another key factor in skin cancer risk. It's associated with skin types that contain different amounts of melanin. People who lack melanin — often those with fair skin and red hair — are at the highest risk of developing skin cancer, according to researchers.
Unfortunately, they found that those students are no more likely to wear sunscreen than their lower-risk friends and are just as likely to use tanning beds.
"Not enough college-aged individuals are wearing sunblock consistently," lead author Emily Graham, a medical student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said in a university news release. "That's especially concerning in Utah, which has the highest incidence of melanoma in the country."
Merrill said students need to be more proactive about protecting their skin while they are young. She suggests wearing sunscreen year-round when in the sun, as well as wearing hats and protective clothing. She strongly recommends against using tanning beds.
The findings were recently published in the Journal of the Dermatology Nurses' Association.
The CDC offers some sun safety tips.