Dangerous Rays: The Dark Side of Suntanning

travelhealthDec06Seaside resorts draw a large population of tourists each year. Beautiful beaches, warm waters and sunny weather make for some great relaxation — especially in the cold of winter. However, lurking danger catches some of us unaware.

Most everyone realizes that endless basking in the sun is harmful, and we try to avoid sunburns. However, did you know that a suntan is also dangerous? Many people feel that they look healthier with a natural glowing tan. It makes us think of the outdoors and being active. Our bodies need exposure to ultraviolet sun rays (UV) to stimulate vitamin D production, essential for fighting several bone diseases, diabetes and cancer.

In truth, however, we require very little sunlight to prevent vitamin D deficiency. And, depending on where we live, we may get enough sunlight in our day-to-day activities already to cover our needs. Basically, if you live during the winter above 37 degrees latitude (north of San Francisco or Maryland), wear clothing to cover most of your skin for cultural/religious reasons, or are housebound or elderly, you may want to use vitamin D supplementation.

Rather than opting for extra time in the sun, which can damage your skin, seek dietary forms of vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in fortified milks, cereals, cod liver oil, salmon and mackerel. In order to benefit from vitamin D, you must also consume calcium. Salmon and vitamin D–fortified milks contain both calcium and vitamin D.

According to the American Cancer Society, a tan is already a sign of damage, and it’s your body’s way of trying to protect you from additional harmful ultraviolet rays. Cells called melanocytes, located in the epidermis, produce the pigment melanin in hair, eyes and skin. Melanin is also responsible for tanning. Triggered by UV light exposure, the skin produces the pigment melanin to absorb harmful rays. The more UV light, the more melanin is produced. This is how ultraviolet rays brown your skin.

If the skin produces too little melanin, the UV light may damage your skin permanently — not just in form of a sunburn. Sunlight affects the DNA of your skin cells. Our bodies are not always able to repair the damage successfully, and when damage accumulates over time, normal cells may start to mutate into cancer cells. Persistent sun damage also accelerates wrinkles, sagging and skin discoloration.

Most of us are unaware of the harm that has been done. Because the effects of sun damage can be delayed for years, we are often lulled into a false sense of security.

However, skin cancer is on the rise. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), in the United States alone it is expected that more than 1 million new skin cancer cases will be diagnosed this year. Not all types of skin cancer are curable. One type of skin cancer, melanoma, can be fatal if not detected early.

A couple of myths:

  1. “A ‘base tan’ protects you from damage.”

According to the American Cancer Society, a tan is “injured skin.” UV rays reach through your epidermis (the top layer of skin) into the dermis (the second layer) and the subcutaneous fat (the third layer), despite the color of the pigmentation. The Skin Cancer Foundation states that darker skin does provide more protection than lighter skin, however, this only applies to naturally darker skin.

  1. “Tanning beds are safe.”

Tanning beds emit mainly ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which may not cause the same burning as the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun, but they still cause damage. These UVA rays appear to possibly be linked to melanoma. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that a study done in Sweden in 1994 showed that women between the ages of 18-30 who visited a tanning parlor 10 or more times a year had a seven times greater occurrence of melanoma than women who did not visit tanning parlors.

How to protect yourself:

Avoid unprotected exposure to the sun during the time of day its rays are strongest — between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Check that the sunscreen you purchase has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or greater, and will shield your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Apply 30 minutes before exposure and reapply every 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat, use sunglasses with 100-percent UV protection and seek shade.

Wear sun-protective clothing. Sun-protective clothing has a tighter weave, and some utilize a fabric coating. These garments should list the Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), the level of protection they provide from both UVA and UVB rays of the sun. Sun-protective clothing has a UPF of 15 to 50+. A UPF rating of 30 means that the garment blocks 97 percent of UV rays. Sun-protective clothing can lose its effectiveness if worn and washed frequently, if too tight, stretched out or wet.

Among the organizations that have developed standard guidelines for the testing and labeling of these garments are the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA). The Australian/NewZealand Standard 4399 is the original, globally recognized standard for sun-protective clothing.

If you wish to have a tanned appearance, consider using sunless tanners or self tanners as a practical alternative to risky sunbathing. These products temporarily stain the top layer of skin, which sloughs off over time as skin cells are naturally shed. Sunless tanners don’t protect you from the sun. Be sure to wear additional sunscreen if you’re going to be in the sun.

Further information

Skin Cancer Foundation: www.skincancer.org

American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org

American Academy of Dermatology: www.aad.org

Health 24: www.health24.com/medical/Focus_centres/777-2268-3749.asp

Mayo Clinic: www.mayoclinic.com/health/sun-damage/HQ01462



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