The Darker Side of Tanning

Dermatologists and public health professionals are concerned about the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, tanning beds, and sun lamps. The two types of ultraviolet radiation are Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). UVB has long been associated with sunburn while UVA has been recognized as a deeper penetrating radiation that causes more damage.

Although it's been known for some time that too much UV radiation can be harmful, new information may make this concern even more important. Recently, some scientists have suggested that there may be an association between UVA radiation and melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

What are the dangers of tanning?

While skin cancer has been associated with sunburn, even moderate tanning may also produce the same effect. UV radiation from the sun, tanning beds, or sun lamps may cause skin cancer and can have a damaging effect on the immune system. It can also cause premature aging of the skin, giving it a wrinkled, leathery appearance.

Is sun good for your health?

People have associated a suntan with good health and vitality. Vitamin D is necessary, but just a small amount of sunlight is needed for the body to manufacture it. It does not require a suntan!

Are people actually being harmed by sunlight?

Yes. The number of skin cancers has been rising over the years due to increasing exposure to UV radiation from the sun, tanning beds, and sun lamps. More than 1.3 million new skin cancer cases are likely to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year.

Are the types of skin cancer caused by the sun, tanning beds, and sun lamps easily curable?

Not necessarily. Melanoma, with a suspected link to UVA exposure, is fatal if not detected early. The number of cases of melanoma is rising in the United States with an estimated 47,700 new cases and 7,700 deaths anticipated this year.

Does the skin of young people show these harmful effects?

Skin aging and cancer are delayed effects that show up many years after the exposure. Unfortunately, since the damage is not immediately visible, young people are often unaware of the damage caused by tanning. It is estimated that cases of skin cancer will continue to increase as people who are tanning in their teens and twenties reach middle age, and more data is accumulated.

Why can some people tan for many years and still not show damage?

People who tan are greatly increasing their risk of developing skin cancer. This is especially true if tanning occurs over a period of years because damage to the skin accumulates. Premature aging of the skin (wrinkles) will occur in everyone who is repeatedly exposed to the sun over a long time. Damage may be less apparent and take longer to show up in people with darker skin.

Which skin type are you?

People with skin types I, II, and III are at greatest risk in the sun.

  1. Pale white skin: Always burns; never tans
  2. White: Burns easily; tans minimally
  3. White (Average): Burns moderately; tans gradually to light brown
  4. Beige or lightly tanned: Burns minimally; always tans well to moderately brown
  5. Moderate brown or tanned: Rarely burns; tans profusely to dark
  6. Dark brown or black: Never burns; deeply pigmented

Are sun lamps and tanning safer than natural sunlight?

No. Most sun lamps and tanning beds emit mainly UVA radiation; these so-called "tanning rays" are less likely to cause a sunburn than the UVB radiation from sunlight. Contrary to the claims of some tanning parlors, that does not make them safe, in fact, they cause deeper skin damage. UVA rays have a suspected link to melanoma, and like UVB rays, they also may be linked to immune system damage and premature skin aging.

Tips to Avoid Sun Damage

  • Plan your outdoor activities to avoid the sun's strongest rays. As a rule, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear protective covering such as broad-brimmed hats, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts to reduce sun exposure.
  • Wear sunglasses that provide 100% UV ray protection.
  • When outdoors, always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater, which will block both UVA and UVB. Apply the sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

For more information on the levels of ultraviolet radiation reaching your area at noon, you can get the Global Ultraviolet (UV) Index from local newspapers, radio, or TV in many cities. The UV Index is a number from 0-10. The higher the number, the more intense the exposure.

See a dermatologist if you notice an unusual mole, a scaly patch, or a sore that does not heal. This may be a pre-cancer lesion or a skin cancer. If you develop severe itching or rashes in the sun, this may be an allergic reaction. The dermatologist may be able to treat or reverse sun damage such as wrinkles and other skin changes with medical treatments and dermatologic surgery.

For more information, please call Adam D. Wray, D.O. our dermatologist at Bingham Memorial Hospital.

*Information provided by the American Academy of Dermatology Copyright 2004