use of sunscreen at an early age can prevent the development of melanoma, the most malignant form of skin cancer. Photo by Flickr user Bryan.

A new study conducted at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute has established that the consistent use of sunscreen in infancy and childhood can do more than prevent sunburn.

According to the study, published in the latest issue of the scientific journal Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research, use of sunscreen at an early age can prevent the development of melanoma, the most malignant form of skin cancer.

The research was driven by the fact that, despite the increasing use of sunscreen in recent decades, the incidence of melanoma continues to rise dramatically, according to author John VandeBerg, a scientist and geneticist at the Institute.

John VandeBerg, a scientist and geneticist at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.
John VandeBerg, a scientist and geneticist at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

“While sunscreen is highly effective in preventing sunburn, this paradox has led some to question whether sunscreen is effective in preventing melanoma caused by ultraviolet light,” he said. “It has been suggested that sunscreen enables people to receive more UV exposure without becoming sunburned, and that increased exposure to UV light has led to an increasing incidence of melanoma.”

Until recently, there has been no natural mammalian model of UV-induced melanoma, VandeBerg said.

Scientists at the Institute established the gray short-tailed opossum, a small South American marsupial, as such a model, and tested an over-the-counter facial lotion containing SPF 15 sunscreen for its ability to prevent UV-induced melanoma.

They found that the application of lotion containing sunscreen to infant opossums led to a 10-fold reduction in pre-melanotic lesions, which are known to progress to melanoma, in comparison to infant opossums receiving lotion that did not contain sunscreen.

This difference in the development of lesions occurred even when low doses of UV light were applied — so low that they caused no sunburn or even reddening of the skin in the opossums that did not receive sunscreen.

The pre-melanotic lesions did not appear until the infant opossums had become adolescents — equivalent to early teenagers in humans — and previous experiments established that the pre-melanocytic lesions in opossums do not progress to melanomas until the animals are well into adulthood, as typically occurs in humans.

Many San Antonians may be wondering, with the first day of summer beginning June 21, what they can do to protect themselves from the sun as they work and play outdoors this season.

The San Antonio Metro Health District focuses on public awareness of Texas health issues including prevention of heat exhaustion but currently does not run a public awareness campaign designed to increase the awareness of the importance of wearing sunscreen.

At the University of Texas Health Science Center, dermatologist Vineet Mishra notes that practicing good behaviors, including applying sunscreen ,is the best way to avoid skin cancer.

“We have abundant sunshine here, which increases risk for skin cancer for people in Texas,” he said. “The study that was performed at Texas Biomedical Institute shows appropriate sunscreen use starting in childhood can prevent melanoma in adults.

University of Texas Health Science Center Dermatologist Vineet Mishra
University of Texas Health Science Center Dermatologist Vineet Mishra

“The study is very important because melanoma is a very aggressive cancer — more than 75,000 cases will be diagnosed this year in the U.S.,” Mishra said. “Unlike other types of cancer, melanoma incidence has been increasing substantially over the last decade.”

Mishra said there are many cases of skin cancer among high-risk populations, including fair-skinned and Hispanic people.

He noted the culprit with both sunburn and skin cancer cases is public misunderstanding,

Consumers should be buying a broadband sunscreen that offers a physical and a chemical blocker to insulate against UVA rays, which increase the risk for cancer by altering cell DNA, and UVB rays, which are responsible for burns, he stressed.

The dermatologist said people who are going to be working outside sweating or being in water should apply sunscreen every hour for protection. Long sleeves and wide-brim hats are the ideal apparel for anyone who is going to be outside during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

He recommended that patients use an SPF 30 to SPF 50 level of protection and reapply it every two hours. They should apply the sunscreen 30 minutes before going into the sun, and they should also apply it to babies who are at least six months old.

“There needs to be more education and awareness about the risk that sun damage can lead to in patients who otherwise might think they are at a low risk,” Mishra explained. “There also must be more education at the school level so young kids can develop better habits and avoid lying out in the sun or getting a tan, both of which practices are shown to increase the risk of skin cancer.”

To address the problem, scientists at UT Health Science Center are offering free skin cancer screenings from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 14 at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center to spread the word about the risk of skin cancer, he said.

Any individuals who are concerned about skin cancer can visit the clinic for a free screening. They can learn more about the screening by calling (210) 450-9840.

The research for the study was supported by the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation.

*Featured/top image via Flickr user Bryan.

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Katherine Nickas

Katherine Nickas was born in San Antonio near Fort Sam Houston but grew up in southern Indiana. In 2007, she began working for Indiana AgriNews where she covered topics ranging from corn and soybean production...