IF you’re looking forward to the balmy days of summer so you can get a healthy tan, you’d better think twice. Due to the rising rates of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) and other health problems caused by the sun’s rays, there’s no such thing as a “healthy” tan. How can something that makes you look great be so deadly?
Blame Those Ultraviolet Rays
The sun emits two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation: UV-A and UV-B. According to the National Academy of Sciences, UV-A probably causes as much as 95 percent of the melanoma-inducing effect of sunlight. UV-A and UV-B both play major roles in causing less harmful skin cancers as well as wrinkled skin and eye problems such as cataracts.
The ironic thing about tanning is that the only reason your skin gets darker is because the skin’s DNA has been damaged! When you’re exposed to ultraviolet radiation for too long–which for some people might be just 10 minutes without sunscreen–your skin attempts to protect itself from the radiation by thickening and producing melanin, the chemical that darkens your skin.
Who Is at Risk?
Certain people are more prone to the ill effects of the sun because their body doesn’t produce enough protective melanin. Even those who rarely get sunburns, however, can suffer skin cancers and premature aging.
What you do as a teenager can make a difference because skin cancer and wrinkling often take years to make themselves apparent. In fact, experts say that among the major risk factors associated with melanoma are three or more blistering sunburns during adolescence (some say just one serious sunburn as a child will do), and three or more years of outdoor summer jobs as a teenager.
The best way to guard against sun damage is to stay out of the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when there is more UV radiation. Even cloudy days are dangerous because 80 percent of UV radiation penetrates right through light cloud cover. When you’re outside for long periods of time, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants. White fabrics are more protective than colored, and heavier fabrics are better than a lightweight T-shirt. And wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck.
Sunscreen Facts and Fiction
Many sun worshipers mistakenly think that if they coat their body with sunscreen, they can safely stay out in the sun all day. It’s true that sunscreens are designed to keep UV rays from penetrating your skin, but they have their limits.
Sunscreens are labeled according to their sun protection factor (SPF). The SPF tells you approximately how long you can stay in the sun before you get a sunburn. For instance, if it typically takes you 20 minutes in the sun to burn without sunscreen, an SPF 15 sunscreen lets you stay in the sun for about five hours without burning (the formula is 20 minutes x 15 [SPF] = 300 minutes, or five hours).
But SPF numbers don’t tell the whole story. Most sunscreens lose their effectiveness after a few hours and need to be reapplied, especially if you perspire or go for a swim. Even waterproof sunscreen needs to be reapplied after you towel off.
And your geographic location can influence how long you should stay in the sun. If you’re sunbathing in the Bahamas, which is close to the equator, you’ll burn faster than if you’re lying on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Some researchers are cautioning that even the thickest coat of sunscreen may not be enough protection. A study at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, found that sunscreen didn’t stop mice from developing melanoma. Yet another report, this one published last year–in the Annals of Epidemiology, suggests that sunscreens might actually be contributing to the rising rate of skin cancer by preventing sunburn, which is the body’s natural warning system. As a result, according to the report, people are staying in the sun longer and unwittingly exposing themselves to dangerous levels of UV rays.
Even with these limitations in mind, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone use a sunscreen with at least SPF 15. it has been estimated that if you use an SPF 15 sunscreen regularly before the age of 18, you can reduce your lifetime risk of skin cancer by as much as 78 percent.
Your best protection may be to learn to appreciate the natural look of a healthy untan!
TANNING BOOTHS: SHORTCUT TO A TAN OR SKIN DAMAGE?
If the friendly folks at your neighborhood tanning salon tell you that their sun lamps provide you with only the safest “tanning rays,” don’t buy it. These devices are so dangerous, almost all skin cancer experts would like to see commercial tanning salons and home-use sun lamps completely banned from the market.
Tanning booths provide huge doses of highly toxic UV-A rays, which some people mistakenly think are safer than UV-B. However, new research shows that UV-A is the major cause of melanoma.
Skin cancer isn’t the only problem. In a recent issue of the FDA Consuer, Lorraine H. Kligman, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania medical school, said that people who use tanning devices often have a lower immunity to colds and other infections.