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To Tan or Not to Tan

The Scoop on the Sun

We all need some sunlight. It is a predominant source of Vitamin D, and some sunlight exposure is necessary for the absorption of calcium, a mineral crucial for bone health (Teen's Health, 2004). Doctors recommend 15-20 minutes of sun exposure about 3 times a week in order to fulfill your Vitamin D requirements (Weil, 2010). Here in Southern California, most of our days are filled with sunshine and outdoor activities, so it is not surprising that most of us can get an overdose of sunlight. Prolonged exposure to the sun and UV rays (ultraviolet rays) results in premature wrinkling, skin cancer, and eye damage. Also, UV light has been more abundant over the last century, and will continue to intensify because the ozone layer, an invisible UV filter, has been significantly reduced (University of Maryland, 2003).

Skin Cancer: A Deadly Reality

Skin cancer has been described by the University Of Maryland Medical Center to be “a disease in which malignant cells are found in the outer layers of the skin (‘malignant’ meaning progressive, uncontrolled growth)”(University of Maryland, 2003). Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer and comes in three forms: Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), and Melanoma.  BCC is the most common, SCC is second-most common, and Melanoma is the rarest but most serious. Skin cancers are curable if detected early, treated appropriately, and closely monitored. Treatment for skin cancer consists of radiation therapy and various types of surgeries (University of Maryland, 2004). This is a hefty consequence just to get a tan. In case you are still not convinced about the severity of this disease, 9,200 Americans die from skin cancer every year. Even one burn from your childhood significantly increases your chance of developing skin cancer as an adult (The National Coalition for Skin Cancer Prevention in Health, n.d.).

No Tan is a Healthy Tan

Indoor tanning is no guarantee for a safeguard. A number of tanning salons claim to emit “solely UVA light” since UVA light is less carcinogenic than UVB light for the sake of preventing burns (De Grujil, 2002). In fact, the indoor tanning industry has argued that indoor tanning serves as a preventative measure against skin cancer because it decreases the incidence of burns, but this is not true. UVA light in tanning beds is actually more concentrated, and will accelerate aging of the skin. There is also concrete evidence that UVA light does in fact cause skin cancer. Moreover, many tanning beds combine UVB light with UVA light to accelerate the tanning process. A tan is the result of melanin, a pigment released into the skin when exposed to UV light and salvages the skin from further UV damage. Although a tan is achieved without sunburn, DNA is damaged before the skin darkens. In conclusion, indoor tanning is a poor substitute for outdoor tanning. It will not prevent you from getting skin cancer, but can potentially increase your risk of developing cancer in the future (The Skin Cancer Foundation, 2005a).

Prevention at its Best

Protecting your skin reaps the benefits, but it does not mean you can’t enjoy the outdoors.  For everyday protection, use a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher with “broad spectrum” protection. SPF stands for sun-protection factor and measures the length of time skin is protected against exposure from UVB light. A higher SPF protects you skin longer. For example, if a sunscreen is SPF 15 and it takes 10 minutes for one’s skin to burn, the protection period will last for 150 minutes (Federal Trade Commission, 2001). Hence, sunscreen needs to be applied liberally, thoroughly (feet and ears burn as well), and frequently, especially when sweating heavily or coming into contact with water. Sunscreen should have a broad spectrum, meaning that the sunscreen will protect against both UVA and UVB light (The Skin Cancer Foundation, 2005b). Any sunscreen product marked with an American Skin Foundation “Seal of Recommendation” is a reassurance that it has met the “highest standards of safety and effectiveness.” UV rays are most intense between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and should be avoided during this timeframe if possible. UV light does penetrate through glass, but clothing, sunglasses, and hats can effectively prevent skin damage. Sunscreen and protective wear is also important in snowy or icy weather because UV light reflects off of the white terrain (The Skin Cancer Foundation, 2005c).

Why not get a tan without the damage?

Why not opt for a sunless tanning cream? They may need some assistance to apply, but they have significantly improved in quality over the years to provide you with a flawless tan. Fortunately, modern cosmetics can mimic a real tan and are up to par with safety standards (Teen's Health, 2003). The active ingredient in these products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which interacts with the epidermis, or outer layer of dead skin cells, to create a tan (The Skin Cancer Foundation, 2005a). DHA is found in almost all self-tanners, including spray booths, airbrush systems, and bottled self-tanners you can use at home (Sheehan, 2005). Self-tanners containing DHA are unsafe when ingested or applied to body parts unintended for use. This includes areas of the body covered by a mucous membrane: eyes, genitals, and lips(Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2003a). The American Academy confirms that the use of self-tanners is a safe alternative to the sun and does not wash off. However, they are solely used for darkening the skin and offer little or no defense against the sun, so sunscreen is still required (American Academy of Dermatology, 2005). DHA is the only FDA approved chemical for the purpose of self-tanning. The product may result in an uneven color on some parts of the body and could potentially stain clothes before setting in (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2003a, 2003b). Many tanning salons offer airbrush tanning, a more costly option that is more convenient and precise. The cost varies, but it is typically around $25 and lasts 5-7 days if skin is fully exfoliated before the session. Self-tanning lotions bought in the store, are relatively inexpensive and range from $10-$35 (Imko, 2005).


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