For many people, it’s one of the great rites of summer — heading to the neighborhood pool or a beach, taking a dip in the water then lying down to “catch some rays.” Millions of people will “work on their tan” this summer, embracing a simple concept: the darker, the better. It’s likely most of these sun worshippers have heard of the dangers of excessive sunbathing, but they believe nothing bad will ever happen to them. Yet recent medical studies underline the dangers of overexposure to the sun. Before you sit out for several hours and roast in the sun, here are some facts you should know about the correlation between tanning and skin cancer.
5. Tanning is a Sign Your Body is Under Stress
We’ve come a long way from the days when lifeguards slathered on baby oil every day to enhance their tan. But even sunbathers who take common sense safety precautions by using sunscreen and avoiding the sun during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) still don’t understand the dangers involved in tanning. Most are blissfully unaware of the fact that a tan is the equivalent of your skin crying, “Help!” In short, when you expose your skin to the sun, your body produces a pigment known as melanin as a defense against damage from the sun’s ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays (known as UVA and UVB). UVA rays are the more common of the two, and cause the long-term damage (wrinkles, spotting and leathery skin) you see in people who have spent too much time in the sun. UVB rays are more powerful, and are responsible for both sunburns and most cases of skin cancer. As your skin shows signs of a tan or sunburn, it’s a sign your body is working overtime to protect itself from dangerous ultraviolet rays. The darker the tan, the greater the stress on your skin.
4. Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer Are Inextricably Linked
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 2 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer each year and more than 90 percent of those are directly attributable to sun exposure. The damage sun causes to skin is cumulative; that bad case of sunburn you picked up five years ago in Acapulco is still a factor in your risk of developing skin cancer. Children are particularly at risk for this cumulative damage, as just one case of bad sunburn as a child doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma as an adult.
3. Skin Cancer Rates Are Up Sharply in Recent Years
A study published in 2012 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that between 1970 and 2009, rates of melanoma increased by 800 percent in young women and 400 percent in young men. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 9,480 people in the U.S. will die from melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, in 2013. Some medical professionals attribute the great increase in skin cancer rates to the proliferation of tanning salons in the U.S. in recent years, but there are other factors involved, including the theory that children who spent more time in the sun than previous generations are now paying the price with higher skin cancer rates as adults.
2. Tanning Salons May Be More Dangerous Than Sun Exposure
These days, it seems almost as if there’s a national law requiring every strip mall in the U.S. to include a tanning salon. About 25 million Americans use a tanning bed each year, so they’re obviously popular. They’re also more dangerous than people, especially teens, have been led to believe. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies UV tanning devices as a Group 1 carcinogen, a category of cancer-causing substances that includes tobacco and plutonium. One study reported in 2012 found that a single tanning bed session increases the risk of developing melanoma by 20 percent.
The risk increases the younger a person begins using tanning devices; according to the Centers for Disease Control, people who begin using a tanning bed before age 35 have a 75 percent higher risk of contracting melanoma. Newer sunlamps are not necessarily safer, as a study reported by the National Institutes of Health indicates high-pressure sunlamps can deliver up to 12 times the annual solar UVA dose to a frequent user. Among the advice the Skin Cancer Foundation offers for preventing skin cancer is this simple statement: “Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths.”
1. Sunscreen Helps, But it Can Give a False Sense of Security
If you must be out in the sun for long periods, sunscreens can help protect your skin and lessen your risk of not just skin cancers but the other unwanted effects (spotting, wrinkles, etc.) of sun exposure. The Skin Cancer Foundation notes that a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of 15 or higher does an “excellent job” in protecting against sun damage. Sunscreens with higher SPF ratings offer greater protection, although SPFs over 50 have not been shown to offer substantially greater protection, especially considering the price difference. But there are many caveats to the use of sunscreen. The sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before exposure to ensure protection, and it must be reapplied every couple of hours, especially after exposure to water (the Food and Drug Administration changed its sunscreen labeling standards in 2012 to prevent use of the term “waterproof”). Also, be sure to use a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
Finally, health care professionals worry that sunscreen can give people a false sense of security. For the best protection, take several other precautions against sun exposure. Wear a hat when outdoors, and avoid the sun during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And keep young children covered up; you’ll be helping ensure their good skin health years down the road.
The author has written numerous articles for health and medical-related websites.