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Skin cancer is a common problem in the United States, with an estimated one in five Americans developing the condition at some point in their lives. Because of this, many people take care to protect their skin by avoiding sun exposure, checking for any worrying changes, and scheduling regular appointments with a dermatologist.

Unfortunately, these efforts often fall by the wayside in the winter, as many people associate sunburn and harmful UV exposure with warm weather, not cold sunlight. This is a misconception that has the potential to be extremely harmful. Case in point, the snowy state of Utah, which was recently revealed to have a higher rate of skin cancer and melanoma than sunny areas like Arizona, California, Hawaii and Florida.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 40 males and one in 50 females in Utah will develop melanoma. While melanoma is a relatively rare form of skin cancer, it is aggressive and often goes undiagnosed, making many cases fatal. As a result, the Utah Cancer Registry has reported that the rate of melanoma is not only 61% higher than the national average, but the state also has one of the highest mortality rates for the condition, 30% higher than the rest of the country.

Several dermatologists have traced these high numbers to Utah’s ethnic composition: many Utahans are descended from northern Europeans, creating a tendency towards light-colored skin, hair and eyes. These qualities are believed to have evolved as a way for humans in overcast areas to absorb more Vitamin D from indirect sunlight, but in sunnier areas, the features often mean a greater likelihood of skin cancer and melanoma. However, other dermatologists have pointed out that people of any race or ethnicity can develop skin cancer. Instead, they believe the high melanoma rate is caused by the land itself, combined with improper sun protection and a culture that prioritizes on outdoor recreation.

These experts likely have a point: while Utah is well-known for its cold, snowy winters, the state’s latitude is equal to that of Rome, Italy. To make matters worse, the area is located at a higher altitude, meaning that it has less ozone coverage to block out harmful UV rays. The snow can also reflect sunlight, increasing the amount of sun any amount of exposed skin receives.

This situation increases already high risk levels for many people in Utah, especially those who engage in outdoor activities like skiing. Studies show that there is 7% less ozone for every 1,000 feet above sea level, and that snow can reflect as much as 80% of UV rays towards a person’s face, meaning that the average skier or snowboarder could be receiving 150% more UV exposure than someone at the beach. With these statistics in mind, hitting the slopes may not seem like such a good idea.

However, by taking the proper steps, dermatologists and doctors say that it is possible to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer or melanoma. People in Utah are advised to wear sunscreen, long layers, and hats between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV light is at its strongest. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, and tanning is strongly discouraged. In light of high cancer rates in Utah and the rest of the country, the acting U.S. Surgeon General, Boris D. Lushniak, has also recommended that communities increase the amount of shade and promote educational measures on the disease.

By Staff