Experts encourage Utahns to lather on the SPF this summer — the state has the highest skin cancer rate nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 38.4 in 100,000 people in Utah had melanoma in 2020, and according to the Department of Human and Health Services, 2.8 in 100,000 people died from it.

Utah’s skin cancer rates were nearly three times as high as in warmer states like Texas and New Mexico from 2015 to 2019, Quotewizard reported.

Why are skin cancer rates higher in Utah?

While Utah’s UV Index is more than six for six months of the year, it certainly isn’t the sunniest state in the country. So it may come as a shock that it ranks first in skin cancer frequency.

Huntsman Cancer Institute Researcher Tammy Stump says the high rates are likely due to three main factors: elevation, skin pigmentation and outdoor activities.

Utah has the third highest average elevation in the nation at 6,100 feet. “So that means that ozone provides less of a shield from the sun,” Stump said.

About 82% of the state population being white, Utah has a relatively large amount of fair-skinned people, who are more likely to get skin cancer.

With its five national parks and 80 mountain ranges, Utah is one of the country’s most popular states for outdoor recreation, making its residents more prone to sun exposure. Stump says it’s easy to get sunburned while skiing or snowboarding because the sun reflects off of the snow.

“We find that is especially problematic during the late spring, like the latter half of March and April,” she said.

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MaryAnn Gerber puts sunscreen on her son Grayson Gerber, 10, at their home in Layton on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. MaryAnn Gerber had melanoma at age 23. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How can you reduce your risk for skin cancer?

The best way to avoid skin cancer, Stump said, is to avoid the sun — especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the UV index is highest.

But that may not be a realistic option for Utahns in the summer, in which case she recommends wearing sunscreen with an SPF greater than 30, wide-brimmed hats or clothing that covers the skin.

More important than SPF, according to Wirecutter, is how much and how often sunscreen is applied: “An SPF 15 lotion that you apply liberally and often can protect you better than an SPF 50+ lotion that you put on only once in eight hours.”

One ounce, or two tablespoons, is usually enough for the whole body in a swimsuit. Sunscreen should first be applied 15-20 minutes before going outside and reapplied after one to two hours, being in the water or sweating.

The most common places to get skin cancer are the scalp, face, ears, neck, chest, back of the hands, arms and legs, but the Moffitt Cancer Center reminds people to sunscreen where they often miss: lips, tops of the feet, behind the knees, eyelids and where the edge of the swimsuit meets the skin.

Stump emphasized that sunburns can still happen when it’s cold or foggy outside, so sun protection remains important.

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She also recommended Utahns regularly check their own skin for new marks and get checked by a dermatologist if they’re high risk. According to the CDC people are more likely to get skin cancer if they have a lighter natural skin color, blue or green eyes or red or blond hair, a large number of moles, a family or personal history of skin cancer.

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Skin cancer risk also increases with age, as older people have thinner skin that’s easier for the sun to penetrate. However, sun damage at any age can contribute to skin cancer in the future.

“Avoiding sunburns in childhood is really important, while the skin and body are still developing,” Stump said.

Skin cancer is also linked to disruptions of the immune system, like organ transplants and immunosuppressant medications. Thus, healthy behaviors that boost the immune system can reduce risk.

“Eating a healthy diet, including eating sources of antioxidants, can help the skin and body repair from sun damage and remain healthy,” Stump said.

MaryAnn Gerber puts sunscreen on her daughter Maggie Gerber, 8, at their home in Layton.
MaryAnn Gerber puts sunscreen on her daughter Maggie Gerber, 8, at their home in Layton on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. MaryAnn Geber had melanoma at age 23. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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