You’ve heard that severe childhood sunburns raise melanoma risk, but what if you had no childhood sunburns, but got them as an adult?

Don’t think for a moment that the absence of a sunburn during your childhood means you don’t have to worry about melanoma.

Sunburns in Adulthood Count

“It has been commonly taught that 50 percent of sun damage occurs before the age of 18,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologist with a private practice in Omaha, NE.

“Dermatologists are changing their thought processes on this, however, as the abundance and availability of indoor tanning has increased.”

More and more adults are getting socked with unnatural (tanning booths) doses of ultraviolet radiation.

And let’s not forget the strong doses of sunlight from tropical vacations.

“For this reason, it is likely that sun exposure risks not only continue, but increase, as individuals age,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

“Sunburns are a sign of lack of protection and major damage to the skin.  Melanomas are clearly linked to the numbers of sunburns that an individual has over a lifetime.”

The risk of melanoma from sunburns, then, does not stop when one turns 18.

Dr. Schlessinger continues, “Furthermore, sun adds up over the years and magnifies damage as well.  With thinning skin as we age, individuals have less protection for their skin as they grow older.

“Many people are able to spend more money on tanning sessions as they age, which further damages their skin.

“Also, sun damage mounts over time, eventually reaching a crescendo where even small amounts of sun exposure or tanning bed exposure can cause significant and irreparable harm.”

The thing with sun exposure is that the damage isn’t instant, like the damage from a car accident.

This suppresses an adult’s awareness and insight into just how damaging cumulative sun exposure and sunburns are.

“Sun exposure doesn’t cause skin cancer right away, which unfortunately leads to people going back to the sun or tanning beds and thinking they ‘got away’ with the sessions/exposures before,” explains Dr. Schlessinger.

“This couldn’t be further from the truth.  What actually happens is that they end up waiting about 20 years before the damage is evident.

“Twenty years is a long time, and during the years leading up to finding out what the initial sun exposure damage will cause, they are usually causing further damage!”

This is scary news, because for many adults, what ultimately happens is that they start developing a slew of precancerous lesions and even cancerous lesions (not necessarily melanoma). By then it’s too late to stop this cascade of recurring lesions.

“Additionally, any interventions to stop exposure will result in minimal benefits until another 20 years has passed,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

The solution is to just avoid tanning booths and unprotected sun exposure. Always wear sunblock. Try to avoid being in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Otherwise, use that sunblock and reapply every 2-3 hours, and more frequently if you’re swimming, says Dr. Schlessinger.

There are clothing lines with built-in sunscreen. Sunburns in adulthood contribute to melanoma risk, and there is no way around this fact.

Dr. Schlessinger, founder of LovelySkin.com, has 25+ years of experience treating many skin conditions including melanoma. He’s founder of the Advanced Skin Research Center, a clinical facility that investigates new medications and treatments.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.