What’s the big deal with tanning?

What’s the big deal with tanning?

If it seems like dermatologists keep ranting about why people shouldn’t tan, it’s true. They actually are ranting. Okay, getting a sun burn is really, really bad, but getting a tan is bad as well. There is a misconception that tanning is fine as long as one doesn’t burn. This just isn’t true. Tanning is the skin’s response to UV injury, an attempt to shield itself from the damage inflicted by UV light.

When UV light hits the skin it is responsible for:

  1. Damaging skin cell DNA that leads to cancer
  2. Suppressing the skin’s immune system making it harder for your body to detect and remove cancer cells
  3. Photoaging (wrinkles, pigment, dilated blood vessels, lax skin, bruising)

Many years ago, having tan skin indicated that one had to work outside and was looked down upon. Then times changed and having a tan was in favor by fashionistas. Different age groups view tanning differently as well. Even today it remains popular among teenagers. Popular or not, tanning is trouble. The very fact that UV light is considered a carcinogen by the US and other international health agencies should underscore why dermatologists try to warn their patients about the dangers.

When outdoors, one has to go out of their way to not get sun exposure. Being passive about sun protection, especially in the southern states, will result in too much sun. This should include clothing to cover as much of your skin as possible, broad-brimmed hats, sunglasses and then sunscreen to cover the areas that aren’t already covered with clothes.

Indoor tanning is a whole separate issue. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that tries to make it seem like tanning beds are safe. They are not. They are just as damaging as outdoor sunlight and in some cases the bulbs can emit variable amounts of UV radiation depending on the age and type of bulbs. Researchers estimate 263,000 U.S. cases of tanning device-related skin cancers in 2015. Even more importantly, when young people use tanning beds they increase their lifetime risk of melanoma. For this reason, several states have made it illegal for minors to use tanning beds, while others require parental permission. Some states have no restrictions at all. Federal level attempts to restrict minors from using tanning beds have been discussed recently.

Regardless of the laws, with the evidence clearly showing increased risk of skin cancer in young people who use tanning beds, parents should help make sure that their kids don’t use them. Period.

More to come…

Michael Huether, M.D.

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