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By Miriam Raftery

July 31, 2014 (Washington D.C.)—“We must act with urgency to stop the ever-increasing incidence of skin cancers in the United States,” Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, M.D., announced this week.

The number of Americans with skin cancer over the past three decades is higher than the total for all other cancers combined – and rates are climbing in recent years, the Surgeon General warns. Five million people in the United States are treated for skin cancer each year – at a cost of over $8 billion.  Nearly 9,000 Americans die each year of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer—and it’s become one of the most common forms of cancer in young people.

Yet up to 90% of all melanomas are preventable, since they are linked to exposure to ultra-violate rays from prolonged sun exposure or artificial tanning.  So this week, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a Call to Action listing goals to help prevent skin cancer. 

The World Health Organization classifies indoor tanning devices as class I human carcinogens.  Tanning beds are linked to over 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. alone each year – and 6,000 cases of melanoma.  In California and some other states, indoor tanning devices such as those found in tanning salons are illegal for anyone under 18 years old.  The federal government requires manufacturers to issue warnings that people under 18 should not use these devices, though they remain legal in some states for teens to access.

But some places have gone even further.  Brazil and New South Wales, Australia, have outlawed indoor tanning completely.

The Surgeon General’s proposal calls for federal, state, and tribal governments to work with employers, health care systems, labor unions, schools, churches, nonprofits and insurance companies to help get word out about making healthy choices to prevent skin cancer.

Here are ways to protect yourself from skin cancer.

Use sunscreen.  When choosing sunscreens, check the sun protection factor (SPF) on the label. Those with SPF levels of 15 or higher can reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature aging when combined with other sun protective measures.

Limit sun exposure.  Avoid outdoor activities during peak sunlight especially at midday.  If you’re sunburned, you’ve definitely been out too long.

Cover up—wear a hat, sunglasses, and tightly woven protective clothing.

Seek out shade to stay cool and protect your skin from harmful UV rays.

Avoid indoor tanning devices.

The Surgeon General’s plan calls for increasing shade in outdoor workplaces, educational and recreational settings—and making shade planning part of land use development policies.  The Surgeon General’s office also calls for education on skin cancer prevention in schools and workplaces. In addition, the plan aims to create messages and policies aimed at reducing indoor tanning, as well as increasing enforcement of indoor tanning laws.

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