Two studies released Thursday by the CDC suggest that public-health messages about the dangers of tanning booths and sunburns are lost on a substantial number of Americans.

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

In one study, the CDC and the National Cancer Institute looked at self-reported sun-exposure data for 5,000 people age 18 to 29 collected through the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) for the years 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2010. Of those participating in the most recent survey, a whopping 50.1 percent of all adults reported having had at least one sunburn during the preceding 12 months. Among whites, the number was worse: 65.6 percent, or about two-thirds, had been sunburned at least once during that time.

That’s all despite the study’s finding that the sunscreen use, taking shelter in the shade, and wearing clothing that reaches the ankles have increased a bit in recent years.

In the second study, the same federal agencies used the 2010 NHIS to track the use of indoor tanning facilities. Overall, 5.6 percent of all adults ages 18 to 25 reported having used such a facility during the preceding 12 months. Among white women ages 18 to 21, nearly 32 percent had tanned indoors; close to 30 percent of women ages 22 to 25 had done so. And of those who said they’d had indoor tanning sessions, almost 60 percent of women and 40 percent of men said they’d done so ten or more times during that year.

Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, notes that indoor tanning and sunburn are both dangerous in their potential to cause melanoma and other cancers of the skin. But, he says, “As I look at it, the number that really sticks out is that 65 percent of white adults said they had sunburn in the last year. That one piece of information really says it all. At the end of the day, when two thirds of the white population of the country is getting sunburn, that’s a really serious problem.”

Lichtenfeld points out that “sunburn early in life is a clear predictor of melanoma, and repeated sunburns over the course of life predicts melanoma and skin cancer.” Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer; others include basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. So all those early-in-life exposures to ultraviolet light, from the sun or in the tanning bed, “over time and many years in the future, may potentially have serious health repercussions,” Lichtenfeld says.

“These hard numbers drive the point home” that public-health efforts to educate people, especially young people, about sunscreen and tanning booths are falling on many deaf ears, Lichtenfeld says. “You look at a study like this and ask, why aren’t we getting our message through?”

 “There’s always going to be a hard-core population” that insists on sunbathing and going to tanning booths, Lichtenfeld acknowledges. “I just hadn’t realized the hard-core population was as large as it is until I saw these studies.”

“These articles have elevated my passion about this issue,” Lichtenfeld says. “They show how widespread this problem is, in a way I had not recognized.”