Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen is a collaborative physician who writes a weekly “Medical Monday” column for Women’s Voices for Change.  (Search our archives for her posts, calling on the expertise of medical specialists, on topics from angiography to vulvar melanoma.) This week, she turns her attention to everyday sun protection, especially for women like her — Redheads “who have the genetic trifecta of red hair, blue eyes and fair skin.”

Dr. Patricia Allen at the Women’s Voices for Change “10 Year Anniversary Luncheon” held in New York City on September 21, 2015.

Ideals of beauty often lead to dangerous practices. “Never too thin” is often associated with anorexia and bulimia. Tanned skin is still considered more attractive than pale skin in spite of the known dangers of sun exposure contributing not only to skin aging but also increasing the risk of skin cancer.

We know much more about skin cancer than we did when I was a teenager. I tried, ineffectively, to obtain that elusive tanned look each summer using a “tanning concoction” of baby oil and iodine while lying in the sun in the middle of the day in order to get the quickest results. I never had a tan but did have many episodes of sun burning and peeling. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with current estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most common forms of skin cancer and are highly curable if detected early and treated properly. Incidence of melanoma, the far more lethal form of skin cancer, has doubled since 1973, increasing 15 times in the last 40 years. This is a more rapid increase than for any other cancer in the US.1

Sun exposure, acute severe sunburns (especially in childhood and adolescence) along with the use of tanning beds are well known to cause an increase in skin cancer. In addition climate change, with its hotter and drier summers, is increasing the risk of skin cancer because people spend more time outdoors with recreational activities and consequently have more episodic exposure to the sun. Depletion of the ozone layer increases transmission of Types B and C ultraviolet light. Since 1980, a sustained depletion of stratospheric ozone levels has occurred, increasing the amount of carcinogenic ultraviolet rays. 2

RELATED: UV Radiation, the Eye, and Sunglass Protection

Much is now known about the genetic regulation of pigmentation and its impact on skin cancer, especially with melanoma risk. We have long known that sun exposure is especially dangerous for women like me, who have the genetic trifecta of red hair, blue eyes and fair skin from an Irish/Scottish genetic background. Redheads comprise an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population and as much as 10 to 13 percent of the population in Scotland and Ireland, respectively. Redheads also make up 16 percent of the world’s melanoma patients. In fact, redheads have a 102 percent higher risk of skin cancer than brunettes.

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  • Deborah Robinson July 31, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Dear Dr. Pat,
    Thank you for this informative article. It is very timely for me as
    I have had two basal cell carcinomas in the past year.
    I am a blue eyed blonde with fair skin, so I now know I
    Have to be very careful. Thank you!

  • Margret Avery July 26, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Dr. Pat,

    Thank you for sharing this very important article about skin cancer. I will pass this on to other friends of mine and clients who don’t always take of their skin in the sun.

    Margret Avery
    makeup artist / beauty consultant

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. July 25, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    Melanoma is more likely to happen in older people. But it is a cancer that is also found in younger people. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers in people under 30 and men have a higher rate of melanoma than women.

    He is ready for his first skin cancer check!

    Dr. Pat

  • Leslie in Oregon July 25, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    As a red-headed, hazel-eyed, pale-skinned woman whose 31-year-old son shares those characteristics, I’m wondering at what age he should start seeing a dermatologist for annual full-body skin checks. (Although I’ve just asked him to ask his primary physician this question, I’d appreciate your opinion too.) Thank you, Leslie