Ancestry, Location, Outdoor Rec. Pushes Utah’s Skin Cancer Rate Higher

Jul 14, 2014

Utah has officially entered the dog days of summer, and with the heat comes the risk of burns.

Utah has some of the highest skin cancer rates in the nation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 40 males and 1 in 50 females in the state will develop melanoma, one of three common types of skin cancer. Utah has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the nation. Dr. Nate Hanson, a dermatologist at Logan Regional Hospital, said the primary factors are ancestry and location.

“Most Utahns share northern European ancestry… fair skinned individuals, particularly those with blue or green eyes, and light colored hair, tend to have an increased melanoma rate,” Hanson explained.

Scientists suggest light skin evolved as a way to compensate for the less direct sunlight of the northern latitudes. Having less skin pigment, known as melanin, would have allowed people to absorb more vitamin D from indirect sunlight. Move an individual adapted to an overcast environment to somewhere sunnier, and problems can arise.

“The closer we get to the equator, the more direct the sunlight is. The rays, instead of coming at an angle toward the earth, come directly down and allow more substantial UV light penetration,” Hanson explained.

Though Utah’s climate can seem similar to that of northern Europe, especially in the winter, Salt Lake City is actually at about the same latitude as Rome, Italy.

Another factor behind Utah’s elevated cancer rate includes the state’s high altitude. Hansen said being higher up in the atmosphere means there is less ozone coverage to block out harmful rays. High amounts of outdoor recreation and work are also factors.

The good news, said Hanson, is that most skin cancer is readily treatable or curable. For now, he suggests staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to avoid the most direct UV exposure.