The Dark Side of Tanning
by Dr. Corinne Howington
There’s nothing healthy about a tan. Simply put, a tan equals your skin cells in trauma trying to protect themselves from cancer. Just one sun-damaged cell can initiate the onset of melanoma, which can get into the bloodstream and spread. Even if melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is cut out, cancer may reappear months or years later, often in the lung, liver or brain.
Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocyte cells in the epidermis of the skin. These are the cells that make the melanin that results in skin color. It is also the most serious and dangerous type of skin cancer because it can spread easily to other organs in the body. But since the sun’s UV rays cause 95 percent of all melanomas, the good news is that melanoma is largely preventable by avoiding over exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
While this is an important message for adults to heed for themselves, it is even more critical for their children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just a few serious sunburns or trips to the tanning bed can increase a young person’s risk of skin cancer later in life. Parents should know, too, that it can take as little as 15 minutes for unprotected skin to be damaged by the sun’s UV rays and that it can take up to 12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure.
Here are five easy ways to avoid the dark side of tanning:
1. Seek shade. The strength of UV radiation is highest in the four-hour period around noon. That would be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or, during daylight savings time, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The best thing you can do for your skin is to plan your day to get out of the sun or seek shade when the sun is high in the sky.
2. Protective clothing. Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible, especially your shoulders, arms and legs. Choose loose fitting, closely woven fabrics that cast a dense shadow when held up to the light.
3. Broad-brimmed hat. A hat with a wide brim is a great way to protect the top of your head and also your neck, ears and face. These are parts of the body where skin cancer often occurs.
4. Sunglasses. The most effective way to protect your eyes is to wear sunglasses that are labeled “UV400” or “100% UV Protection” and wrap around the sides of the face. Darker lenses do not provide better eye protection. In fact, lens color does not matter at all.
5. Sunscreen. Used properly, sunscreens are effective in preventing sunburn. This means generously applying SPF30 broad spectrum sunscreen to your skin 20 minutes before you head outdoors and re-applying every two hours. Studies have shown that SPF30 sunscreen decreases your chances of developing melanoma by 80 percent.
Sunscreen should never be used to extend the amount of time you spend in the sun and should not be used to help get a tan. You should also be aware that some drugs and medical conditions can make you more vulnerable to UV damage. These include Retin-A skin cream, antibiotics and cataracts.
Too much UV exposure may also result in structural damage to the skin – burning or scarring in the short term and premature aging or skin cancer in the long-term.
People with fair skin and light-colored eyes are usually more vulnerable to the sun’s harmful rays, but melanomas can occur in anyone. A July 2016 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed it is more deadly in people with darker skin. African American patients were most likely to be diagnosed with melanoma in its later stages than any other group in the study, and they also had the worst prognosis and the lowest overall survival rate.
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, including places that do not receive frequent sun exposure, and is likely to have a similar appearance to a mole. Unlike a mole, however, a melanoma will usually grow larger and become more irregular in shape and color. If you’re concerned about a mole or lesion on your body, talk to your doctor and learn the ABCDE rule, which is a useful guide for detecting potentially dangerous moles on your skin. Look for moles that are asymmetrical (not the same on both sides), have irregular borders, have changed color, are 0.5 centimeters or larger in diameter or have changed in size, shape, color or height. If you are worried about a mole or see any of the signs described above, see your doctor right away.