Think of a tan as a “healthy” glow? Think again. Tanning damages the skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer.
For most people raised in the 90s and before, glowing, bronzed skin was seen as aesthetically pleasing—a sign of good health, in fact. In reality, though, when your skin tans, it’s a sign of subtle skin damage.
Skin damage can cause premature signs of skin aging, like wrinkles and sun spots, but it’s also the biggest contributor to skin cancer. This type of cancer is widespread among Americans, with approximately 5.4 million cases diagnosed each year.
These days, most people know to take steps to protect their skin from the sun. But there’s still a prevailing and harmful misconception that having a tan makes you look healthy. Read on to learn why we need to change that.
What a Tan Is
Skin that’s been exposed to the sun may take on a bronzed appearance that’s pleasing to the eye. That bronzing is actually an increase in skin pigment known as melanin.
When your skin changes color, even slightly, as a result of exposure to the sun or a tanning bed, it’s a sign of skin damage. In fact, the increased production of melanin is actually your body’s defense mechanism.
But contrary to popular belief, that tan doesn’t actually defend you much. Having a tan doesn’t protect your skin from sunburn and other skin damage. Here’s an interesting way to think about it: Experts recommend protecting your skin by applying sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 when spending time outdoors. A tan only gives you an SPF of 2 to 4.
How Tanning Affects the Body
Whether you’re spending time in the sun without slathering on sunscreen or time in a tanning bed, you’re exposing your skin to dangerous ultraviolet rays. There are three types of ultraviolet (UV) rays—UVA, UVB, and UVC rays.
UVC rays don’t make it to Earth because they’re absorbed by the ozone layer. Both UVA and UVB rays make it through the ozone and hit our skin here on Earth.
UVB rays have a short wavelength and reach only the outer layer of your skin, the epidermis. This type is responsible for most sunburns and can increase the risk of skin cancer. UVA rays, on the other hand, have a longer wavelength and can penetrate into the middle layer of your skin, the dermis. This type of UV ray leads to skin aging, lowers your body’s immunity, and can increase the risk of skin cancer.
Exposure to ultraviolet light can affect your body in many negative ways, causing sunburn, premature aging, actinic keratoses (precancerous skin growths), photokeratitis (sunburn of the eye’s cornea), cataracts, and a diminished immune system. A single sunburn during childhood or adolescence nearly doubles your risk of developing melanoma later in life.
You may have heard that sun exposure boosts your body’s vitamin D production. While this is true, there are safer ways to get the vitamin D your body needs to metabolize calcium and function at its best. Spending just a few minutes in the sun with sunscreen on helps promote vitamin D production, and you can also choose foods that contain vitamin D naturally or that are fortified with the vitamin.
The Link Between Tanning Beds & Skin Cancer
Tanning beds are often promoted as a safer way to get a tan. That’s simply inaccurate.
Indoor tanning is associated with an increased risk of all types of skin cancer. Spending time in a tanning bed increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 58% and basal cell carcinoma by 24%. Using a tanning bed while you’re young also greatly increases the risk of melanoma—doing so before age 20 nearly doubles your risk of melanoma and the risk increases each time you tan.
The numbers underscore the danger. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there are more cases of skin cancer worldwide related to indoor tanning than there are cases of lung cancer tied to smoking.
There’s another misconception tied to tanning beds. Many people believe that a tanning bed can help promote vitamin D production during the winter when the sun’s rays aren’t as intense. But tanning beds produce UVA rays, while UVB rays are associated with vitamin D production.
Still think you’d like a tan? Bronze your skin with a gradual tanning or self-tan lotion, spray, or makeup. You’ll still glow, but your skin will be safe.
When you need us, we’re here to help. West Tennessee Medical Group offers medical specialists of all kinds, from primary care providers and pediatricians to dermatologists and cardiologists. Find a provider here.