Is there such a thing as a safe suntan?

safe tan
Is there a way to safely tan your skin without exposing it to the damage that may lead to skin cancer?

With summertime comes warm days in the sun, baseball games, barbecues and lazy days at the beach. And, for many, it's the time to celebrate the end of winter with a deep, "healthy" summer tan. But is there a way to safely tan your skin without exposing it to the damage that may lead to skin cancer? "The answer is no," says Stephen Lynch, MD, Vice Chief of Staff and Primary Care/Intake Physician at our Phoenix hospital. "If you’re exposed to the sun, there is potential for damage.” But there are steps that may help prevent burns and protect the skin from excessive damage, he says.

How does skin tan?

Skin tans when cells just below the surface, called melanocytes, are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light and produce melanin, a pigment that darkens skin. Melanin absorbs UV light and helps protect the skin from burning. But too much UV light may do serious damage. UV light penetrates deeply and may cause premature aging of the skin, eye damage and harm to the DNA of skin cells that may lead to basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, the two most common types of skin cells. Worse, damaged melanocytes may develop into melanoma, which accounts for 2 percent of all skin cancers, but more than 90 percent of skin cancer deaths.

Ultraviolet rays are difficult to avoid. They have the power to bounce off water, snow and sand, and penetrate windows, windshields and clothing. Children, young adults and people with fair skin are at greater risk of cell damage from UV light. "In general, the lighter your skin, the more probable you are to burn,” Dr. Lynch says. “Melanin, which causes darker skin tones, has a protective effect. Having darker skin, however, has been shown to lead to delayed diagnoses in some types of skin cancer.  So, everyone needs to reduce skin damage from the sun. "

Tips to protect your skin

To help protect your skin from the damage caused by UV light, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you: 
  • Use sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher if you plan to be outside longer than 20 minutes. The sunscreen should be water resistant and protect against UVA and UVB rays. Reapply regularly, especially after sweating or getting out of the water.
  • Don't burn. Sunburns have been linked to an increased risk of melanoma.
  • Avoid tanning booths and beds that use damaging ultraviolet light. Several states prohibit the use of tanning booths for people under 18. And some countries, including Australia, have banned tanning salons. Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world.
  • Be especially vigilant in protecting yourself from sun damage between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is often strongest. Seek shade when you can. And cover up with a wide-brimmed hat, UV-blocking sunglasses and long sleeves and pants.
  • Examine your skin for suspicious spots every month and see a dermatologist for skin checks once a year.

Even though tans are not safe, that won’t stop many active people from enjoying the outdoors this summer. And it shouldn’t. Outdoor activities are one way to get exercise, which helps reduce the risk of cancer and other illnesses. Moderate sun exposure also helps the body produce vitamin D, which has been shown to boost the immune system and promote the growth of healthy cells. "Don’t be fooled by cloudy or cooler days,” Dr. Lynch says. “You can still get burned. Also, be careful of areas where you may be in the shade but UV rays are being reflected towards you. There’s lots to do outdoors, just try to be safe about the way you enjoy it.”

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