The sun is risky business for our skin. Not only can harmful UV rays significantly age the skin but can also make us more prone to developing skin cancer.
May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month; a national effort to increase awareness about a deadly disease that affects people of every age, gender, and ethnicity. Melanoma occurs when the pigment-producing cells that give color to the skin become cancerous. The rates of melanoma have been rising the past 30 years and it is currently estimated that 1 in 27 men and 1 in 40 women will develop an invasive melanoma in their lifetime.
Most skin cancer is caused by ultraviolet (UV) light primarily from the sun and indoor tanning beds. However, the good news is if diagnosed and treated early, skin cancer can often be cured. But if the disease is allowed to progress, it can result in disfigurement and possibly death.
Each year cases of skin cancer attributed to UV exposure is higher than cases of lung cancer caused by smoking. Let us repeat that: The number of skin cancers we blame each year on UV exposure is higher than the number of lung cancers we can blame on cigarettes. Despite these startling statistics, only a little over half of American adults use sun protection measures.
Wearing at least 30 SPF year around is your best defense against skin cancer as well as the aging effects on the skin that UV light causes. Most of our daily exposure to sun for people who don’t work outdoors comes from walking to and from your car, sitting or driving in a car, or sitting by a window at your desk. Even tinted windows do not provide broad spectrum protection from UV rays.
Here are some prevention guidelines to protecting your skin from The Skin Cancer Foundation:
• Seek the shade, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM.
• Don’t get sunburned.
• Avoid tanning, and never use UV tanning beds.
• Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
• Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen
• with an SPF of 30 or higher.
• Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating.
• Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.
• Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
• See a board-certified dermatologist at least once a year for a professional skin exam.
Indoor tanning is NOT safe
Tanning beds are another factor that has resulted in the increase in skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly 25% of young adults surveyed were either unaware or unsure that tanning beds are NOT safer than the sun. The dangers of using tanning beds is so prevalent that in MN, along with about a dozen other states, it is illegal for a minor to use a tanning bed. Evidence from multiple studies has shown that exposure to UV radiation from indoor tanning devices is associated with an increased risk of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer, including squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma.
Here are a few facts about indoor tanning:
• Research shows that even one indoor tanning session can increase users’ risk of developing melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67% and basal cell carcinoma by 29%.
• Using indoor tanning beds before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer by 59%, the risk increases with each use thereafter.
• There is no such thing as “safe bulbs,” for indoor tanning. The bulbs used in tanning beds generally emit only UVA rays. While you may not burn, UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin
causing damage and in some cases are stronger than the sun.
• A “base tan” will not be better for you or prevent you from burning. When skin becomes tan, it is a protective defense and means that damage has occurred, and the DNA of skin cells has
• Researchers estimate that indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year.
• Vitamin D is not made by your body from a tanning bed, most beds emit UVA light only, however, your body needs UVB light to make vitamin D. A safer way to get vitamin D is through a
healthy diet, if you still aren’t getting enough, consider taking a supplement.
• In addition to the risk of skin cancer tanning beds pose, the UV rays will also cause damage to your skin. You will begin to see brown spots, wrinkles, lax skin and a rough texture to
your skin, and it may take as long as ten years before the sun damage becomes visible on the surface of the skin.
Other things that UV light can do
Becoming addicted to tanning is a real risk and growing evidence indicates that about 20% of 18-30-year-old white women who use indoor tanning show signs of addiction. They find it hard to stop tanning. When they don’t get a steady dose of UV rays, they feel fidgety or depressed. The appeal of the tanned look comes not only from its association with glamour and sex appeal, but from the physiological reinforcement of UV-based tanning behavior. Researchers have found that UVR exposure releases mood-lifting hormones called endorphins that can literally create a dependency known as “tanning addiction,” or “tanorexia” stimulating tanners to seek more UVR exposure. This dangerous combination of addiction and so-called glamour means that many people at greatest risk of skin cancer remain highly motivated to tan, even when they know the dangers.
The idea that naturally tanned skin is healthier is a common myth and easily dispelled with a little research. In a society obsessed with preserving youth and good health, why do many of us still associate “sun-kissed” skin with health? Especially given the fact that exposure to UV rays will cause damage to your skin such as brown spots, wrinkles, leathery appearing texture, as well as eroding the collagen and elastin that supports the skin. All of this damage leads to skin that looks much older than it actually is. The tide is slowly changing as more and more people, including celebrities are “embracing the pale,” or at least if they do want a little color, they are using sunless tanners. As people become more educated about the dangers of UV rays the idea of a tan will gain less popularity.
Let’s just be clear, there is really no such thing as a safe tan, other than the kind that comes in a bottle. Sunless tanners have come a long way in the color they achieve as well as the ease of application. The active ingredient in most sunless tanners is the coloring agent DHA (dihydroxyacetone), which combines with the amino acids in the skin. The resulting reaction causes a browning, but unlike the reaction caused by UV rays, it involves only the outermost, dead cell layer of the skin.
It is never too late to start protecting your skin from the sun and indoor tanning beds. As soon as you do, your body starts to repair some of the damage caused by the UV rays. It is important to be aware of any changes in the appearance of moles or new growths on your body and have them checked right away if there are any changes.
You only get one skin. Keep it safe. Cherish it. Protect it.