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A new study shows that a surprising group of young adults have an increased risk of sunburn—those who have higher melanin, and therefore darker skin.

A group of researchers recently conducted a survey in Florida that showed a correlation between reporting a red or painful sunburn lasting a day or more in the past 12 months with self-identifying as non-white.

The 20-minute survey, conducted February to April 2015, was given to 437 participants ages 18 to 29 who were recruited from public places. Eligible participants were those who resided in Florida, and spoke and understood English. Participants answered 79 questions regarding demographic characteristics, dermatologic factors, knowledge about sunburn and sun protective behaviors. They were also asked to report the number of red or painful sunburns they had in the past 12 months.

Younger age was the most significant predictor of sunburn. Other significant predictors included identifying as nonwhite, reporting higher levels of skin sensitivity to the sun and having a less favorable attitude toward sun protection.

Study authors believe that the combination of youth and having melanin-rich skin provides a false sense of resiliency to sunburn.

“Osteopathic medicine is largely focused on prevention, and melanoma, the skin cancer caused by sun exposure, is imminently preventable,” Dr. Tracy Favreau, DO, the study’s lead author, an osteopathic dermatologists based in Florida, said in a statement. “The concern here is that participants with high melanin content skin may think they're naturally protected from sunburn, which isn't true.”

Favreau said that melanoma is the most prevalent type of cancer for people between 25 and 29 and the second most prevalent type of cancer for people between 15 and 29.

 Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with approximately 5 million people receiving treatment annually. Of the three types of skin cancers, melanoma accounts for only two percent of occurrences but nearly half of skin cancer-related healthcare costs. It is also the deadliest of the three, as it has the highest rate of metastasis.

 “We need to develop tailored sunburn prevention programs to change attitudes and reduce the risk of melanoma,” said Favreau.

The survey confirmed a number of well-known conclusions including that spending time outside during peak daylight hours or having a negative attitude toward sun protection results in greater risk of sunburn.

According to osteopathic medical student and lead author Dr. Sergey Arutyunyan, MS, the whole-person approach to patient care—a primary tenant of osteopathic medicine—led him to think about how to better disseminate information about the risks of sun-exposure and skin cancer.

“Technology presents effective opportunities to reach people where they are, in ways that will resonate with them personally,” Arutyunyan said in a statement.

Arutyunyan said location-based apps are available to send reminders about sun exposure and existing technology can be triggered by an amalgam of factors, including time of day, specific geographic regions or self-identified skin type.

However, even with new apps, people have to see the need to reduce sun exposure.

“To more closely target younger people, we may need an app that gamifies sun protection and rewards taking precautions,” Arutyunyan said. “Simply warning of the danger is not having an effect.”  

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