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Can Certain Fashion Trends Lead to Melanoma?

Oct 06, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

In the world of fashion, one day a trend is in, and the next day it's out. From miniskirts and platform shoes to crop tops and bikinis, we've seen it all, from the best to the worst. But with the rise and fall of fashion trends comes an unforeseen consequence.

A century's worth of cultural and historical forces have contributed to the rise in the incidence of melanoma, including changes in fashion and clothing design, according to an intriguing new study.

Researchers at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at New York University's Langone Medical Center suggest that early diagnosis and improved reporting practices do not fully account for the steady rise in cases of melanoma. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011 12,212 people died from melanomas of the skin, including 8,241 men and 3,971 women. Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer, and is nearly as deadly as breast cancer in the United States.

Researchers decided to analyze the effect of clothing styles, social norms, medical paradigms, perceptions of tanned skin, economic trends and travel patterns on rates of melanoma, focusing on the percentage of exposed areas of the body.

First looking at the early 20th century, people donned clothing that almost totally concealed the body from head to toe since porcelain skin was associated with those of a higher social class.

However, changes in medical practice soon would pave the way for a shift.

"In the early 20th century, sunshine became widely accepted as treatment for rickets and tuberculosis, and was considered to be good for overall general health," lead study author Dr. David Polsky explained in a statement.

This resulted in a widespread belief that tanning was good for your health, leading to more leisure time and swimwear and sportswear that progressively covered less skin.

In addition, over the years the social beliefs associated with tanning turned on its head. Whereas tanning was once associated with a lower class of people who worked outdoors, now it's a sign of the leisurely upper class quality of life and good health.

The study's results show that as the percentage of estimated skin exposure increased so did the number of melanoma cases in the United States.

"Attitudes and behaviors shape exposures. More skin, more sun and more tan lead to more melanoma," Polsky concluded.

The new findings were published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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