Spring is one of the best aspects of Minnesota. We all emerge from our winter hibernation to enjoy the warmer temperatures and especially the rejuvenating sunshine. Unfortunately, sun and UV exposure come with risks. Many of my patients comment on their pale legs and skin unaccustomed to sunshine and cannot wait to get that first bit of tan. Society has conditioned us to think that a tan is healthy, but, in fact, a tan is your skin’s way of trying to protect itself from the harmful effects of UV exposure.
Ultraviolet light is part of the energy emitted from the sun. It is imperative for life on Earth, but can also cause harmful damage when the energy disrupts the normal cells of the body. There are two types of ultraviolet light present in sunlight: UVA and UVB. These cause different effects in the skin because they penetrate to different depths of the skin. UVA rays penetrate to the deeper layers of the skin and play a major role in tanning, photoaging (wrinkles, sun spots, broken blood vessels, laxity), and skin cancers. UVB rays can only go into the more superficial layers of the skin. These rays are the main contributor to sun burns and skin cancers, and they also play a role in suntans and photoaging.
UVA rays are the principal player in the tanning process. The skin tans as a way to try to protect us from further sun damage. Think of a tan as your skin putting up little umbrellas to try to keep out more sun rays. This is a highly imperfect system as we can still get lots of sun damage through this tan.
Tanning beds use a concentrated form of UVA that gives you up to 12 times the amount you would get from outdoor sun exposure. This is an efficient way to give you a tan, but also drastically increases damage to the skin and skin cancers. Remember, a tan is your body’s signal that it is being damaged so by the time you tan, a significant amount of harm has already occurred.
Because of this concentrated exposure, people who use indoor tanning devices are at an especially increased risk of skin cancers. According to the National Skin Cancer Foundation, people who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. The younger you are at first use, the higher the risk. Young people who use a tanning bed are at a whopping 75% increased risk of getting melanoma.
Tanning does not protect you the way many people think. Getting a base tan from tanning beds before going on spring break does not help to reduce your risk of sun damage, burns or skin cancers from the sun. In fact, even going tanning a few times a year before spring break, prom or homecoming significantly increases your risk. Going just four times per year during high school/college results in a 15% increased risk of BCC, 15% increased risk of SCC, and an 11% increased risk of melanoma.
Skin cancer is easily treated when caught early, but can result in significant scarring and disfigurement. Protection and prevention should be a part of your daily routine. Sunscreens with a broad spectrum protection and an SPF of 30 or higher as well as special sun protective clothing are important to limit the amount of UV exposure our skin gets. Especially avoid tanning beds. If you simply must do something with those pale winter legs, opt for a spray tan or self-tanner lotions.