Skin Cancer Lessons from MTV's "Jersey Shore"

With melanoma on the rise, skin cancer education is an issue that requires greater intervention from health care professionals. Pharmacists should use this month--designated as Skin Cancer Awareness Month--as an opportunity to drive home the importance of prevention.

“I don’t want to die from skin cancer,” was Snooki’s fearful refrain after Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), sat down for a tanning intervention with the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” last February. It was a far cry from “GTL” (short for gym, tanning, laundry), the catchphrase and life philosophy that launched their celebrity careers.

In a short presentation, Dr. Sarnoff gave the self-proclaimed tan-evangelists a glimpse of their future, showing what they could look like in 20 years if they continued their habits. The cast grimaced as she held up photographs of cancerous moles and stressed skin cancer’s fatal consequences. Following the session with Dr. Sarnoff, Snooki and her roommates vowed to switch to artificial spray tanners to achieve the color they covet.

Whether or not the reality stars have kept their promise, the exchange underscores the responsibility health professionals have in reaching young adults with relevant, striking messages about the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Far from healthy, bronzed skin is a sign of cells in distress. The brown pigment released when the epidermis is exposed to UV radiation is the skin’s natural defense against damage—yet the myth of the “healthy glow” persists.

Each May, Skin Cancer Awareness Month offers health professionals the chance to revitalize education initiatives and reach out to those who may not have gotten the message. As the month comes to a close and summer approaches, pharmacists can participate in this effort by offering the following guidelines for sun safety and skin protection, courtesy of SCF and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD):

Use sunscreen; don’t tan. This two-part tip may seem obvious, but bears repeating. The National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization have designated UVA and UVB rays as causes of cancer, and exposure to both—whether in the sun or in a tanning booth—increases risk. Patients should choose broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 and apply 1 ounce every 2 hours, even in cloudy conditions. When swimming or sweating, more frequent application is needed.

Wear protective clothing. Hats and clothing made from tightly-woven, dark-colored fabrics offer the most protection from UV rays. According to SCF, “if you can see through it, then UV radiation can penetrate it.”

Perform self-exams. To identify melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, experts recommend the ABCDE method. Patients should see a dermatologist if they notice any moles or dark spots that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Asymmetry: One half is unlike the other half.
  • Border: The border is irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined.
  • Color: Color is varied from one area to another, with shades of tan, brown, black, white, red, or blue.
  • Diameter: A spot larger than 6 millimeters, or the width of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.

Choose better sunglasses. UVA and UVB rays have been linked to cataracts, eyelid cancers, and macular degeneration, according to SCF. Older patients with lighter eyes are at greater risk for complications. For the best protection, sunglasses should be close-fitting and large enough to shield the entire field of vision. They should also block at least 99% of UVA and UVB light. Polarized lenses help reduce glare, which can cause headaches or eyestrain over time.

A complete guide to OTC sunscreen and sun block products is provided in the OTC Focus article “Damage Control: Protecting Skin from Sun Damage,” written by Yvette C. Terrie, BS Pharm, RPh, and published in the May issue of Pharmacy Times. For patient education resources on sun protection and skin cancer, visit the Skin Care Foundation and the American Academy of Dermatology.

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • Can Pharmacies Improve First-Time Adherence?
  • WHO Reports on Impact of the 2009 H1N1 Flu Season
  • NACDS Sets Up Shop in San Diego