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The truth about tanning: Indoor and outdoor tanning dangers

Janice McDuffee is a graduate of news-editorial journalism from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She now works in freelance writing and editing.

Dangers of bronzed skin

Believe it or not, there was a time when fair, pale skin was all the rage in its representation of class, prestige, and separation from the tanned working masses. Oh how things have changed! Tanned, bronzed bodies with that glowing sun-kissed look are in. But before you follow the tanning trend, you may want to think twice.

Woman with Tan

Tanned bodies walk the red carpet

Today, our royalty walks red carpets at movie openings and parties with glowing, dark skin (and some, like George Hamilton, look a tad like tanned leather). Some A-listers use sunless tanners while others expose themselves to ultraviolet light lying in tanning beds or basking on the beach.

It is tempting, if not irresistible, to emulate their beauty by succumbing to the dangers of both natural and artificial sunlight, despite the warnings of skin cancer and premature aging.

Think twice before tanning

Dr. Erin Welch, board-certified dermatologist of the American Academy of Dermatology and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) encourages women to think twice about catching some rays to enhance their beauty. Here is what you need to know before you catch some rays.

UVB RAYS

You may have heard UVB rays referred to as the "tanning rays." UVB rays have shorter wavelengths, mostly associated with outdoor sunlight, that have increased strength in the summer. These intense summer rays are responsible for that coveted glowing tan or, in excess, those beet red burns. For many years, sunblock only offered protection against UVB rays because the affects of UVA rays were still unknown.

UVA RAYS

There was a time when UVA rays were thought to be safer than UVB rays because UVA effects were not as immediate as UVB rays. This lead to the popularity of tanning beds and bold advertising, still used in many tanning salons today, that indoor tanning is safer than outdoor sun-bathing. However, scientists have found that this is untrue. UVA rays have longer wavelengths and actually penetrate deeper into your skin.

Outdoor versus Indoor Tanning

According to Welch, sunlight tends to be a mixture of UVA and UVB, while artificial tanning bulbs emit more UVA.

The significant difference between the two types of rays are related to their wavelengths, but both cause damage to your skin. While the longer UVA rays penetrate the skin deeper, they also break down collagen and elastic tissue and generate free radicals and oxidative damage, according to Welch. 

The shorter UVB rays cannot reach this deep, but they cause mutations in the DNA of skin cells in the higher layers of skin and cause sunburns.

While you are less likely to burn from UVA rays, it is still possible and UVA rays have proved to be linked to increased melanoma rates.

Not only are UVA rays dangerous, but they can also be accounted for rapidly aging skin. "By penetrating deeper into the skin, the longer UVA rays actually break down collagen and elastin and stimulate wrinkling even faster than sunlight alone. This accounts for the 'leathery' appearance of the skin of chronic indoor tanning bed users," says Welch.

WHAT ABOUT VITAMIN D?

In many salons, you will see advertisements that encourage customers to get bronzed in tanning beds because exposure to both natural and artificial sunlight provides vitamin D, a vitamin the body manufactures from a metabolite of cholesterol when exposed to sunlight (a process that can occur in five to 15 minutes of sunlight exposure).

However, Dr. Welch is quick point out that "most people get this much incidental light on various areas of their skin during their daily activities, and have no need to seek additional artificial light exposure to make vitamin D."

In fact, despite the health benefit of vitamin D, skin cancer is most commonly seen on the most chronically exposed areas of the body, such as the head and neck, from incidental sun exposure.

Also, vitamin D is readily available in many dietary sources, such as dairy products, fish, liver, egg yolks, and fortified orange juice. Dr. Welch says, "There is no need to encourage wrinkles and skin cancer by trying to make vitamin D with your face!"

Both tanning beds and overexposure to sunlight end up doing more harm than good.

WHO IS AT RISK?

If one expert is not enough to convince you, the NCI confirms that tanning beds increase the risk of skin cancer as well as natural sunlight.

According to the NCI, women who use tanning beds more than once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop malignant melanoma, which is the most deadly form of skin cancer.

Other types of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma), which can easily be prevented, will affect 40 to 50 percent of Americans who live to be 65 years old.

According to the NCI, people at greatest risk are those with fair skin; blonde, red or light hair; and blue, green, or gray eyes.

Artificial and natural sunlight exposure is also most likely to affect those who easily burn, have already been treated for skin cancer or have skin cancer in their family history.

Recommendations for the tanned look

The NCI recommends that you avoid tanning beds and booths and regularly check for abnormalities (bumps and sores that don't heal or moles that evolve in shape and color).

Dr. Welch, the NCI and the American Academy of Dermatology recommend the use of spray tans and other sunless tanning products in place of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from natural and artificial sunlight.

"I think the most attractive skin for my patients is healthy-looking skin, without wrinkles, spots, and other blemishes associated with chronic sun damage, so I encourage all of my patients to protect their skin from excessive sun exposure," says Welch.

"[Self-tanners] are very safe, and while they offer little protection against sunburns, they can allow women to have a little 'summer color' without paying the price in premature aging and skin cancer surgery down the road."

More on tanning and skin health

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