Author: Bridget McCrea
Take a look at today’s reality television stars, any group of young women posing for prom photos and most current fashion magazines and chances are you will see evidence of an alarming and persistent trend: tanning.
Despite established links between ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and higher melanoma rates, young adults continue to pursue the perfect tan to a deadly degree.
In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports that between 1970 and 2009, there was an 800 percent increase in the number of women with melanoma and a 400 percent increase in occurrence of the disease in men. And while melanoma accounts for less than 5 percent of skin cancer cases (other skin cancer types include squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma), it contributes to the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.
Tanning is dangerous
As alarming as the statistics may be, the number of young people hitting the beach and heading to tanning salons on a regular basis is not subsiding. And whether they are looking to catch rays outside or inside, the danger is clear and present.
Increased exposure to UVR through tanning beds is a major contributing factor in the growing number of people with melanoma. Individuals who use tanning beds receive up to 12 times as much of the annual dose of ultraviolet A (UVA) rays as those who are exposed to natural sunlight, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. The danger is so grave that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an affiliate of the World Health Organization, includes ultraviolet tanning devices under its Group 1 designation, a list of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances; the group also includes such agents as plutonium, cigarettes and solar ultraviolet radiation.
“The bottom line is that tanning is a bad thing for your skin,” says Walter Quan Jr., MD, Chief of Medical Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® in Goodyear, Arizona. Tan skin, he says, is damaged skin. “When your tan fades, it’s your body trying to repair the radiation damage from the sun. Unfortunately, skin doesn’t forget that exposure—a fact that you can clearly see on men and women who spent a lot of time in the sun when they were younger.”
Combating melanoma head-on
When Dr. Quan began warning the public concerning skin cancer risk about 20 years ago, there were roughly 37,500 new cases of melanoma in the United States every year. Over the past two decades, that number has grown to 70,000. “It’s very clear that we’re seeing more cases than ever before,” he says. And those inflated numbers are not the result of earlier or more-effective detection.
“This isn’t a situation where we’re finding cases earlier, so there are more cases overall,” Dr. Quan explains, noting that the number of individuals who die from melanoma has remained fairly constant over the past 20 years. “It’s that people are getting more sun exposure— and not just on the beach; it’s happening at sporting events, while gardening and cutting the grass and even while driving or riding in a car. It’s everywhere.”
Also contributing to the increasing number of new melanoma cases is the continued influence of browned, bronzed and tan models and media stars. Says Dr. Quan: “Every young person who opens up a magazine or watches a TV show sees images of models and actors who are tan and fit”—a phenomenon that has been ongoing since the seventies and eighties. He points out that because the latency period of melanoma can be as high as 25 to 30 years, folks who were worshipping the sun in the mid-eighties may only now be feeling its effects and receiving their skin cancer diagnoses.
Now for the good news: There are steps that you can take to avoid melanoma and protect your skin from UVR. For those individuals who can’t escape spending time in the sun (those whose jobs require that they spend time outdoors, for instance), the best defense is to cover up as much as possible with protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. And regardless of skin tone, any areas of skin that are exposed should then be covered with sunscreen labeled with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 40 or higher. “I don’t have a fair complexion, and even I use SPF 40 and up when I’m out in the sun,” says Dr. Quan.
Timing your exposure to the sun is also important. Dr. Quan advises individuals to complete their outdoor tasks before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m. “If you stick to these hours,” he says, “you’ll get less radiation than you do during those four hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.”
Finally, Dr. Quan says that steering clear of tanning beds, taking in adequate levels of vitamin D via a healthy diet and/ or supplementation (see sidebar “Get Your Vitamin D”) and paying attention to skin cancer screening guidelines (see sidebar “Follow the Screening Guidelines”)—all go a long way toward protecting the skin and preventing melanomas. And, he says, by limiting outdoor sun exposure and staying out of tanning beds, “adults can also set good examples for our nation’s youth and help them lead healthier lives.”