April 1998

Media Contacts: Sarah Goodwin, 404/727-3366 - sgoodwi@emory.edu
Kathi Ovnic, 404/727-9371 - covnic@emory.edu

Dermatologists in Emory's Melanoma and Pigmented Lesion Center say sunscreen should still be a very important part of a skin care regimen, despite a recent study casting doubt on the link between sunscreen use and development of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

The research, based on a review of studies that have been done about sun exposure, sunburn and sunscreen and their relationships to melanoma, concluded that sunburn has not been reliably shown to be related to melanoma, nor that sunscreen has been shown to prevent melanoma. The results of that research project were reported at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia earlier this year.

But Emory skin cancer researchers and physicians, as well as the American Academy of Dermatology, cite flaws in the study, including only looking at studies that surveyed people about their sunscreen usage in the past 10 years when most skin cancers occur decades after the damaging sun exposure. The study also did not take into account the fairly recent advent of sunscreens with high sun protection factors (SPF) and broader range protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

"We have an overwhelming body of data, experience and knowledge that shows clearly that sunscreens protect the skin from damage caused by the sun that leads to cancer," says Carl V. Washington, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology. "We have to compare that body of knowledge with one study that raises questions about the relationship between sunscreen and melanoma. Our position is that there is no new information that justifies throwing out what has already been shown, that sunscreen helps prevent melanoma."

Washington says sunscreen should only be one part of an overall plan of skin protection, including avoiding the sun during its most intense hours and wearing clothes that cover the skin during sun exposure. Because sun exposure is only one of the risk factors for melanoma, there is no guarantee that total sun avoidance is going to protect against getting this deadly form of skin cancer.

"Family history, personal history, skin color and the number of moles we have are all factors in how likely we are to get melanoma," Washington says. "We can't avoid these other risk factors but sun exposure is something we can actively control. I would never suggest that my patients become cave-dwellers, but to the degree that you have a choice, try to control your sun exposure. If you are playing tennis and could play at noon or at four in the afternoon, choose to play at four. If you are going for a run, go at seven in the morning instead of midday. Be flexible when you can."

Washington recommends performing regular skin self-examinations, one of the most important parts of a skin safety routine, and having annual skin examinations by a physician. Skin cancer, including melanoma, is almost always curable if found early enough.

The Melanoma and Pigmented Lesion Center is part of the Winship Cancer Center of Emory University. The Winship Cancer Center is dedicated to providing leadership and excellence in all aspects of cancer, including patient care, education, and basic, translational and clinical research. Providing a professional community to allow interaction of all members, divisions and departments involved in cancer treatment or research, the Winship Cancer Center is part of Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center.


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