Sweden and Skin Cancer

Why Sweden has some of the highest rates in the world.

If I had to guess, I would have placed Sweden pretty far down on the list of countries with the highest rates of skin cancer. Why you ask? Well, because we basically go months without seeing the sun in Sweden!

But that hasn’t stopped Swedes from doing whatever it takes to get some sun. Between traveling to warmer climates, like Thailand or Spain, and using the summer to catch up on all the missed rays during winter, Swedes are actually getting a lot of time in the sun. These Swedes are so sun-loving that I even wrote a whole post on it last year!

But, unfortunately, all this time worshiping the sun is showing up in higher rates of skin cancer.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund and the Global Cancer Observatory, Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of reported skin cancer. Which isn’t too surprising. What is surprising is that, in 2018, the Nordic countries followed – with Norway #3, Denmark #4, and Sweden #6. The US was 17th.

When looking at just men, Sweden ranked #5. And with just women, Sweden was still #5, but Denmark rose to #1.

I know the Nordic countries love to be at the top of all world rankings, but this isn’t one to be too proud of. As Johan Hansson, a doctor at Karolinska hospital, said in 2012, “Skin cancer has been on the rise in Sweden since the 1960s, and shows little signs of slowing down as the Swedes are a sun-worshipping nation.”

And research done at Karolinska Institutet and Lund University, which was published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, has supported Hansson’s hypothesis, showing that “the risk of developing more than one skin melanoma over a ten-year period has seen a ten-fold increase in Sweden since the 1960s.”

Dr. Hildur Helgadottir, the principle investigator of the study, links the cause to overseas holiday trends that gained popularity in the 1960s:

“The Cancer Registry started in 1958, which is roughly when Swedes started to go on package holidays to the sun,” says Dr Helgadottir. “More active sunbathing and overseas trips to southern climes have led to more UV exposure of the Swedes’ often sun-sensitive skin. This is probably one important reason for the sharp rise in the risk of developing recurrent melanoma.”

Another reason is due to the high usage of tanning beds in Sweden, despite that research has proven a link between their use and skin cancer. In fact, tanning beds are completely illegal in some countries, including Brazil and Australia, and in many other countries if you are under 18.

Growing up in Los Angeles, California, I learned early on to slather myself in sunscreen daily. And, thankfully, that habit has continued since I moved to Sweden in 2018. You’ll even find me wearing SPF 50 during the winter. And since I don’t get as much sunlight as I did while living in the US, I have definitely come to worship the sun, too. But remember, even though the Swedish sun doesn’t feel that strong, it definitely still is! So while summer is coming to a close, be sure to maintain (or start!) good sun protection habits – it is never too late!

Fun Facts:

  • Skin cancer is the 19th most common cancer worldwide.
  • There are two main types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma.
  • Melanoma was the fifth most common type of cancer in Sweden in 2020.
  • What is the difference between UVB and UVA rays? According to Skincancer.org:
  • UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in developing skin cancer. A sunscreen’s SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides.
  • UVA rays cause skin damage that leads to tanning as well as skin aging and wrinkles. The shortest wavelengths of UVA rays also contribute to sunburn.
  • It’s important to look for the words “broad spectrum” on a product’s label, which means it has ingredients that can protect you from UVA as well as UVB rays.
  • What does the SPF number mean? According to Skincancer.org:
  • The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen. So ideally, with SPF 30 it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen.
  • An SPF 30 allows about 3 percent of UVB rays to hit your skin. An SPF of 50 allows about 2 percent of those rays through. That may seem like a small difference until you realize that the SPF 30 is allowing 50 percent more UV radiation onto your skin.

Tess’ Tips:

  • Light layers and a sun hat can go a long way in protecting you from the sun’s harmful rays!
  • My favorite sunscreens for the face are Shiseido and Missha.

Hope you learned some new Swedishness today and I’ll see you in the next post!


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