Planning to tan? Why you may be setting your skin up for trouble

You may love the look of a summer tan, but too much UV can be a bad thing

Image source: Thinkstock

Image source: Thinkstock

Many people love having a healthy “glow.” For some, that glow means spending some time sitting in the sun or under the lights of a tanning bed so they feel good in a swimsuit or shorts.

But dermatologists say skin does not have to burn to be damaged by harsh ultraviolet (UV) rays. In fact, that tan has actually damaged the DNA in your skin cells, and there are long term risks.

Dr. Melody Vander Straten, a dermatologist at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic at Steiner Ranch, says excessive exposure to UV light from the sun or from indoor tanning beds can lead to premature skin aging (wrinkles, sun spots, decreased elasticity), immune suppression, and even eye damage (cataracts or cancers of the eye).

The dangers of indoor tanners

woman on indoor tanner

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Indoor tanning beds emit UVA and UVB, the two types of UV radiation that lead to sunburns and skin cancers.

“That tan may look glorious now, but later may have unintended, even deadly consequences,” Dr. Vander Straten said. “The amount produced by [tanning] machines may be as strong, or even stronger, than the sun’s rays. Studies have shown that tanning increases the risk of skin cancer, both of the non-melanoma and melanoma types.”

There is an up to 75 percent greater risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, in people who tan indoors on a regular basis.

Melanoma warning signs

Exposure to UV light — whether from the sun or an indoor tanner — is the most important risk factor melanoma. Other risk factors include having:

  • Over 50 moles
  • Atypical moles
  • Fair skin, freckles and light-colored eyes
  • Blistering sunburns
  • A family member with melanoma
  • A prior melanoma.

Having a personal history of melanoma increases your risk of developing another melanoma by nine times.

Skin cancer statistics

But Dr. Vander Straten says all people should know the risks for skin cancer — whether they use indoor tanners or not.

Statistics show:

  • One in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetimes.
  • By 2015, one in 50 will develop melanoma in their lifetimes.
  • Over 3.5 million non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed in over 2 million people each year in the United States.
  • Melanoma is the most common form of cancer in ages 25-29, and the second most common cancer in adolescents and ages 15-29.

“One American dies every hour from melanoma. With statistics like that, it is hard to ignore the dangers of sun and artificial UV exposure,” Dr. Vander Straten said. “Exposure to UV is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancers, especially melanoma. Regular self-skin exams and at least yearly visits to the dermatologist can increase the likelihood of early detection, which, especially in the case of melanoma, could save your life.”

It’s not too late to take action

woman putting sunscreen on child

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Even people who may have spent much of their youth in the sun without sunscreen can benefit from taking action to prevent skin cancer now, but unfortunately, the damage can have lasting effects.

“The effects of UV exposure are cumulative, meaning they add up over the years, and cannot be completely reversed,” Dr. Vander Straten said. “So your risk increases with the number of sunburns (especially ones that blistered) and the amount of unprotected sun exposure you’ve had over the years.”

Using sunblocks can help reduce further damage — sunburns, early skin aging and skin cancers — although sunblocks cannot block all of the sun’s UV radiation.

“A sunscreen with Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 only blocks about 90 percent of the sun’s rays. Sunscreen alone cannot protect you completely,” Dr. Vander Straten said.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone use sunscreen on all exposed skin every day you will be outside — even on cloudy days because the sun’s rays can penetrate the clouds.

Your sunscreen should have these three features:

  1. Broad spectrum (covers UVA and UVB)
  2. SPF 30 or higher
  3. Water resistant

Here are some other things to keep in mind to protect your skin:

  • Put sunscreen on about 15 minutes before going outside.
  • Make sure you apply sunscreen correctly.
    Dr. Vander Straten says you should use one to two shot glasses of sunscreen to cover the entire body, depending on your body size.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours — more frequently if swimming or sweating.
  • Wear protective clothing – hats, sunglasses, long sleeves and pants.
  • Seek shade.
    The sun’s rays are most intense between 10am and 2pm.

What’s the best type of sunscreen to use?

“The best type is one you are willing to use again and again,” Dr. Vander Straten said. “There are many options now when it comes to forms of sunscreens.  Creams are best for the face and areas that tend to be dry; gels are best for hair-bearing areas.  Sticks are helpful around the eyes as they tend not to run.  Sprays can be helpful on kids and balding areas.  There are also specific types of sunscreen recommended for babies and folks with sensitive skin. Your dermatologist may have specific suggestions for your skin type.”

Check for warning signs

Image source: Thinkstock

Image source: Thinkstock

If you are concerned about your risk for skin cancer, Dr. Vander Straten says it’s important to watch for warning signs.

These include a new, changing, or unusual-looking mole, especially if it conforms to what Dr. Vander Straten describes as the “ABCDEs of melanoma.”

  1. Asymmetry – doesn’t look the same on one side as the other
  2. Border – an irregular or jagged border
  3. Color – black or red in color, multiple different colors
  4. Diameter – larger than 6mm (standard pencil eraser)
  5. Evolving – a mole that started small and enlarged quickly (a good rule of thumb is  significant change in a month or two)

It’s a good idea to visit a dermatologist yearly to examine all your moles.

“Everyone who has moles, including children, should be screened periodically,” Dr. Vander Straten said.  “There are some people, however, who have an increased risk for melanoma, and may need to be seen more frequently.  You should also visit a dermatologist as soon as possible if you have a new spot, one that bleeds easily, or one that won’t heal.”

For more specific information on skin cancers, indoor tanning, sunscreens, and instructions for performing a self-skin exam, visit the American Academy of Dermatology website.

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