SUN TANNING That unhealthy glow: Avoid the ultraviolet
The threat of skin cancer is growing rapidly, says a dermatologist.
By CATHY SECKMAN
Admit it, you've been thinking about the tanning bed. Summer is coming, along with shorts and swimsuit season, and that vacation to the beach will be here before you know it. Wouldn't it be nice to have a good, deep tan for the season?
Think twice before giving in to that desire for a healthy-looking glow, says dermatologist Dr. J. Ray Bernat Jr. of Dermatology Associates of Youngstown. It might make you feel better to have brown, sun-kissed skin, but it isn't actually healthful at all.
"Ultraviolet radiation leads to DNA changes in the cells of the skin." he said. "The changes cause three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma."
Growing risk: Thousands of people die from melanoma each year, he said, and the numbers are growing. "The risk of melanoma for a person born today is one in 70, and no one really understands why. The threat of skin cancer is growing rapidly, and sun exposure plays a big role."
It doesn't matter, Dr. Bernat said, whether that ultraviolet radiation comes from natural sunlight or from the bulbs of a tanning bed, it still damages your skin.
"In my opinion," he said, "a tanning bed is worse for you than sunlight, because it's not regulated. If you go to a bed in the afternoon, for instance, when the bulbs are hot, you get more radiation exposure without knowing it. And even if you don't get a burn, the ultraviolet radiation is still bad for you. Tanning bed proponents have no argument there."
The American Academy of Dermatology states that artificial ultraviolet radiation carries all the risks of natural sunlight, and goes on to say that there is no known safe way to tan. Chronic exposure to the sun results in a change in the skin's texture, causing wrinkling and age spots.
Chronic ultraviolet exposure over the years is also what leads to cell carcinomas, Dr. Bernat said. "It has nothing to do with whether you get a burn on a particular day. Burning adds more of a risk factor, but even if you don't burn, accumulated ultraviolet radiation is still bad for you."
Everyone is susceptible: Sun and UV protection isn't just for Caucasians, either, dermatologists warn. People with African, Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern heritage may have darker complexions, but they still face a danger from the sun and ultraviolet radiation. The American Academy of Dermatology calls darker skin "sun insensitive," meaning there is some inherent protection and less likelihood of burning.
"But you can still burn, and you still have to be careful," Dr. Bernat said. "Darker complected people are less likely to get squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas, but they still can get melanoma, and they still need checks and evaluation. They're still exposed to ultraviolet radiation."
Does all of that mean everyone should stay out of the sun? Of course not, said Dr. Bernat. "I recommend that people get outside and enjoy, but protect yourself. Wear a hat, wear sunscreen."
Sunscreen: Dr. Bernat recommends checking the labels to find a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA -- ultraviolet rays that age the skin and lead to skin cancer -- and UVB -- ultraviolet rays that burn the skin and can also lead to skin cancer. Another thing to look for on labels is the SPF -- sun protection factor. An SPF of 15 blocks 92 percent of ultraviolet radiation, so dermatologists always recommend SPFs of 15 or higher. An SPF of 45 blocks 96 percent of radiation.
The biggest mistake people make with sunscreens, Dr. Bernat said, is to apply them and forget about them. "You should reapply a sunscreen every 90 minutes, especially if you're exercising, sweating or swimming."
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Dermatologists have recently changed their position on sunblock for infants, Dr. Bernat said. It is now considered safe to use sunblock on babies less than six months old. Regardless of skin type, the AAD suggests that sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 should be used year-round. Even on a cloudy day, says the AAD, 80 percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays pass through the clouds. Sunscreens used on a regular basis can allow some repair of damaged skin.
Option: What about all the people who run to tanning beds and lay out in the sun anyway, just to get a bronze summer glow? What about those of us who feel conspicuous with white, pasty-looking skin?
That's easy, said Dr. Bernat. Use self-tanning lotions. "I love tanning lotions. They're a lot better than they used to be," he said, "no more of that orange hue. I do tell people to try them on an inconspicuous area first, like the upper thigh, before using it on the face."
The important thing to remember about self-tanning lotions, he cautioned, is that there is no sun protection factor in them. "They darken the outer layer of skin, but you can still burn even though your skin looks dark. Always remember that you still need a sunscreen."