Dr. Robert P. Young wants people to be very afraid.

"I spend my time trying to scare people about skin cancer," the dermatologist told a BYU Campus Education Week session last week.

There's good reason for fear. In 1900, he said, the chances of having malignant melanoma were one in 1,500. That risk has increased to one in 63 today, he said, but "people aren't very scared of skin cancer. You don't have to be 80 years old to have skin cancer."

Much of what we call aging is actually sun damage. If you look at the skin on the top of your arm and compare it with the skin on the inside of the arm, you'll see what the sun has done to your skin. The theory was that 80 percent of lifetime sun damage occurred by the age of 20, but subsequent research has shown that to be an exaggeration.

His message?

Use sunscreen. Be sure it's relatively new, don't forget to put it on your chest and reapply it every hour or two. He cautioned against buying no-name sunscreens, citing Consumer Reports research that found generic brands were not as effective as brand-name types.

And make sure it has ingredients to block both ultraviolet A and B rays. The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) should be as high as you can get, he said. SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97 percent and SPF 50 blocks 99 percent.

If it normally takes about 10 minutes before you start turning pink without sunscreen, SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically affords you 15 times that amount — or 150 minutes. But exposure to wind and moisture, as well as your skin type, are factors that can affect the length of protection.

So what does skin cancer look like? Anything.

"I don't even know every time," Young said. "That's why I do biopsies every day."

Denial is one of a human's biggest defense mechanisms, Young said, so it's important to see your doctor if you have "any sore that's not healing."

"If there's anything new, growing, changing, bothering you or worrying you, see your doctor," he said.

Young is trying to scare us — so a doctor will have time to save us.

For more information about skin cancer and related topics, visit www.skincancer.org.

Robert Walsh

rwalsh@desnews.com