The Health Risks of Tanning.

This is a synopsis of an article published on Harvard Health Publications

Skin cancer is on the rise in the United States: approximately five million people will be treated for skin cancer this year (a 50% increase from the prior decade), costing more than $8 billion in treatments (twice the cost of the previous decade).

Sun exposure and tanning (whether in the sun or in a tanning bed), damages skin and increases the risk of skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “a single blistering sunburn can nearly double one’s lifetime risk of melanoma.”

For years, dermatologists have been trying to correct the common myth of “the base tan.”

What’s a base tan? Before you go on vacation, you slowly increase your tan to avoid burning when you’re basking in the sun at your destination. However, experts estimate that meeting the sun with a base tan is equivalent to wearing a sunscreen an SPF of 3 to 4.

What does this mean? Well, if you would normally develop a sunburn after 20 minutes, a base tan may give you up to 80 minutes in the sun prior to burning. Since wearing sunscreen is much more effective than relying on a base tan to protect you from burning, the question you may ask yourself is whether it’s worth the skin damage, the risk of cancer, and the time and expense to become mildly tan before your trip.

There is a correlation between tanning early in life and a higher probability of skin damage and skin cancer risk. Due to this risk, 42 states (as of 2015) passed bans or restrictions requiring parental consent for teenagers to use tanning booths. And, it’s effective. A new study of more than 15,000 U.S. high school students, shows that indoor tanning decreased from nearly 16% in 2009 to just over 7% in 2015.

What are safe levels of sun exposure? Well, there’s been controversy about what’s healthy. Some suggest that we should not limit sun exposure drastically, because, the sun helps increase are reservoir of vitamin D, by converting inactive forms to the active form in the skin. It doesn’t take much exposure to do this, and vitamin D is beneficial for your bone health, your immune system, and other parts of the body. Although, there are other ways to get vitamin D, through supplements and dairy products, which upholds the opinion of health professionals who argue that even brief exposure to intense sun can damage skin and increase cancer risk.

If your goal is to get a tan, think about using “sunless” tanning lotions, gels, or sprays that temporarily stain the skin. And, remember to apply sunscreen, as these products do not protect against sunburn.

What are the safest ways to stay avoid sunburn?  Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications has some recommendations:

  • Stay out of the sun during the most harmful periods (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
  • Choose a sunscreen that offers an SPF of at least 15 to 30 and protects against both UVA and UVB radiation (broad spectrum). And, re-apply at least every two to three hours (more often if you’ve been sweating, swimming, or rubbing your skin with a towel). 
  • Wear protective clothing: a long-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and long pants offer good protection from sun exposure. Dark fabrics that are tightly woven are best.

These recommendations are most effective when used together. It’s important to remember that you can burn on cloudy days, too. You can check your local UV index by entering your zip code on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, or download its mobile app.

Dr. Shmerling states that as with most public health issues, more research is needed. And, more programs are necessary in schools to correct misconceptions about tanning and educate the public about the dangers of sun exposure.

Read the full article here.

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