Beauty is Only Skin Deep – Tanning Basics

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This week marks spring season’s jump back into our lives (YAY!), and I celebrated by wearing a dress to work on Monday. Office mate said, “Nice legs, but you could use some sun.” I laughed and had to explain that I don’t tan because I avoid sun damage. I would rather look pale versus tan; appear sickly versus healthy. Think about that word play irony. The way to get that “healthy” tan is primarily via exposure to the sun, tanning beds or artificial topical tanning treatments, all of which are lower on the healthy totem pole by comparison to simply leaving our skin alone.

The amount of misinformation available online is hilarious. A simple Google search for “how do you get a tan?” revealed the answer, “what makes you tan is melon that works hard in your skin and gets a darker color.” Melon, eh? The mass majority know this is false. What is not hilarious is there are many who flock to tanning salons for what they believe is the safe alternative to baking in the sun.

What is Tanning?

A tan is basically injury to the skin’s DNA. The skin reacts to UVA exposure by darkening in an attempt to prevent further DNA damage. The darker the tan, the more the mutations, and with enough mutations come skin cancer. Here’s how it works.

Ultraviolet (UV) rays damage the skin’s cellular DNA, and excessive UV radiation produces genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer. UV radiation is considered the main cause of nonmelanoma skin cancers (NMSC), including basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). More than a million worldwide and 250,000 Americans are affected by skin cancer each year. Despite our wealth of knowledge as it relates to protecting our skin from the sun, many still seek that “healthy tan.”

UVB rays cause surface sunburns and vary by season, location and time of day. They are most intense in the U.S. between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM from April to October. While intensity varies, they can still burn and damage skin year-round, especially at high altitudes and on reflective surface. Snow or ice can reflect up to 80 percent of the ray. What does this mean? You get hit twice with the rays even during winter. One bit of good news is UVB rays do not significantly penetrate glass.

UVA rays are a different beast. They attack deeper connective tissue and trigger long-term damage such as skin cancer, wrinkles and sunspots. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, they are present with relatively equal intensity during all daylight hours year-round, and can penetrate clouds and glass. Recent studies show that UVA rays damage skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, where most skin cancers occur.

What about Tanning Booths?

Tanning booths primarily emit UVA rays. The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun. Statistically tanning salon users are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. According to recent research, first exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75 percent.

Alarmingly, a recent congressional report exposes the tanning industry’s misleading messaging to teens. Specifically, Committee investigators found:

  • Nearly all salons denied the known risks of indoor tanning
  • 90% stated that indoor tanning did not pose a health risk
  • 51% denied that indoor tanning would increase a fair-skinned teenager’s risk of developing skin cancer
  • Salons thought the link between indoor tanning and skin cancer as “a big myth,” rumor,” and “hype”
  • 80% claimed that indoor tanning was beneficial to a young person’s health
  • Several salons even said that tanning would PREVENT cancer

Other health benefit claims included:

      • Vitamin D production
      • Treatment of depression and low self-esteem
      • Prevention of and treatment for arthritis
      • Weight loss
      • Prevention of osteoporosis
      • Reduction of cellulite

The report suggested that salons used a variety of approaches to minimize the health risks of indoor tanning, especially when marketing to young girls. Consequently, the general perception of teenaged girls was that “it’s got to be safe, or else they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The Skin Cancer Foundation is currently campaigning to generate letters of support urging the FDA to regulate tanning beds and ban those under 18 from using them. The Foundation feels the tanning salon industry’s misleading practices for the sake of revenue are putting the lives of people, particularly young women, at risk.

My feeling is we all make choices in our lives by weighing the risks involved, however, we deserve to be properly informed. I definitely partake in my share of risks, but I learned and chose early on to avoid skin damage by using SPF products in lieu of makeup (see here for all natural sunscreen products) or a “healthy tan.” For me, pale trumps skin damage or cancer any day. I shudder to think how many young women have already been affected by the myth that tanning beds are a healthy choice. Be proactive in staying informed. I can’t preach this enough. Beauty is only skin deep, and our true colors – tan or lack thereof – reveal the truth of what lies beneath it all.

Lynda is a freelance writer in San Diego, California with a deep passion for human physiology and what connects the mind, body and spirit. She has her biology degree from the University of Texas at Austin, with 12 years of corporate communications and investor relations experience in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. A certified group exercise instructor since college, she advocates health and fitness as a lifestyle, and aims to motivate others to seek the same state of well being.

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