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Monday, October 18, 2021

Why there’s no such thing as a ‘healthy tan’


While being outdoors is considered good for both our physical and mental health, tanning is not.

As the temperatures get warmer, many of us are heading to the beach and spending longer hours under the sun.

Even though that bronze summer “glow” may look healthy, dermatologists agree that it is actually the opposite. There is, unfortunately, no such thing as a healthy skin tan. In fact, tanning, or darkening of the skin is a sign of DNA damage.

What is UV radiation?

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun penetrate the outer layers of your skin (the epidermis), which damages your DNA in the process. 

There are two main types of UV rays that cause skin damage or even skin cancer. These are:

  1. UVB which is responsible for sunburns
  2. UVA which penetrates deeply into the skin and ages it.

Another type of UV, UVC, is potentially the most dangerous of all to humans, but is fortunately completely blocked by the ozone layer. 

The temperature is not an indication of the strength of UV rays. UV rays can’t be felt on the skin, and so people are still able to burn on days that are cool or cloudy. 

What damage does UV cause?

To defend itself against UV radiation, skin cells called melanocytes produce melanin. Melanin is a pigment that protects your body against further damage from the sun by helping to absorb the UV radiation. It is this pigment that causes the skin to darken and results in the desirable but dangerous tan. 

Whilst everyone has the same amount of melanocytes in their bodies, how much melanin each body produces is different and is dictated by heredity. For example, naturally darker skin tones such as the skin of Africans, contains more melanin than the skin of Caucasians.

Skin damage from tanning is also cumulative. This means that the common misconception that getting a “base layer tan” can prevent skin damage from future tanning sessions, is simply untrue. Each time the body is exposed to UV radiation, the damage caused to the skin increases. 

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A sunburn occurs when the skin gets too much UV light, causing damage to the tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin. Other short-term physical effects resulting from exposure to the sun include melasma, a skin condition that causes patches of discolouration that are darker than your usual skin colour, as well as the appearance of freckles. Exposure to the sun can also cause a skin condition called rosacea, which is characterised by facial redness and in some cases visible blood vessels.

In addition, UV radiation affects the skin by breaking down collagen. Collagen is a major component of the skin and plays an important role in the strengthening of the skin, its elasticity and hydration. As we grow older, our bodies produce less collagen and so this results in the skin becoming more dry and the formation of wrinkles. As such, sun exposure leads to advanced ageing, wrinkles, easy bruising and sunspots. 

How does UV cause skin cancer?

UV radiation, either directly from the sun or from tanning beds, causes damage to our DNA. Our DNA tells our body’s cells how to function, and so as the damage builds up, this damage can cause our cells to start growing out of control. Even though people with lighter skin are more prone to getting skin cancer, people with darker skin can also be affected.

Skin cancers that are associated with sun tanning include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma (known as non-melanoma cancers) as well as melanoma. Melanoma is considered the rarest but the deadliest type of skin cancer as it can spread to other organs in the body if not treated in time. 

Is it really that risky?

According to statistics from the United States based Skin Cancer Foundation:

  • One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they reach the age of 70. 
  • More people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the US each year than all other types of cancers combined.
  • Current estimates show that the number of newly diagnosed melanoma cases in 2021 are likely to increase by 5.8% when compared to the year before.
  • Having five sunburns or more doubles your risk for melanoma, but even just one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence more than doubles the likelihood of a person developing melanoma later in life.
  •  More than two people die of skin cancer every hour in the US.

However, it is not all bad news. Early detection increases the 5-year survival rate for melanoma to 99%. Therefore, knowing the signs, remaining alert, and immediately alerting a professional if you are doubtful, can most certainly help save lives.

How can we be safe while exposing ourselves to the sun?

While there are some pros to sun exposure, such as vitamin D production, only about 15 minutes in the sun, three times a week is needed to get those benefits. With prolonged and repeated sun exposure, the risks most definitely outweigh the benefits. 

In order to protect our skin, experts recommend that we do the following:

  • Wearing sunscreen

Sunscreen should be broad spectrum with a minimum of 30 SPF. For the best protection, sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and even more frequently if you are swimming or sweating as it may dissolve or wash off.

  • Avoid tanning beds

Skin cancers linked to the use of tanning beds are more common than lung cancers linked to cigarette smoking. Tanning beds can be more dangerous than outdoor tanning due to the intensity of UV rays directly applied to a person’s body. 

  • Seek shade

If you must be outdoors and under direct sun exposure for extended periods of time, make sure to give yourself breaks in the shade. Even though shade alone isn’t enough to offer maximum protection from the sun, it can help minimise it to a certain extent.

  • Avoid peak times

Roughly between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm are when the sun’s rays are at their strongest. If you’re eager to spend time outdoors, which is recommended for your mental and physical health, it is best to do so before or after those peak times. 

  • Use a self-tanner

Many of us like the way we look better when we are tanned. Luckily, there is a way to achieve this bronze glow even for those of us who are health conscious and cautious. Using a self-tanning product or getting a spray tan are the safer option as most of these products are FDA-approved and do not penetrate the skin and cause harm.

Read also: The worrying impact of climate change on human health and wellbeing

Usually, these tans last around one week, depending on the product, however, exfoliating beforehand, and moisturising often after application, will ensure that the tan lasts longer.

Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH]. 

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