Do you competitively strive for that enviable dark skin of the ladies strutting out of the tanning salons? Do you adamantly set aside money every month to keep up your tanning salon membership? Do you even think twice about the potential damage those tanning bed rays are wreaking on your skin? If having bronzed skin is one of the highest priorities in your beauty routine, you could be a tanning addict. Though some ladies love the moniker, being a tanning junkie is wrought with risks.
The tanning salon scenario
You’ve seen her – the radiant young woman in her late teens working the front desk at the local tanning salon. One such tanned goddess greets me as I stroll into a popular tanning boutique in Greenwich, CT. She’s already been hard at work shedding the last remaining evidence of her pale, winter skin, as evidenced by her toasty golden brown patina. When asked how often she uses the salon tanning beds, she brags, “Three to four times a week.”
This is a typical schedule for most of the clients who visit this salon on a weekly basis. When asked if she warns patrons about the potential harm of excessive exposure to UV light, she quips, “They wear protective eyewear and lotion, if they want.” I can tell she is already cranking up the watts on the SunCapsule stand-up before even thinking twice about the nature of this question.
Having the ultimate golden tan doesn’t come without a price. First you pay the monthly fees and then you pay with damage to your skin and the elevated risk of skin cancer.
Tanning is a potential Nationwide Health Crisis
Multiply the above scenario by about 30 million, the total estimated patrons of professional indoor tanning facilities in the U.S. (according to the Indoor Tanning Association), and you can see why dermatologists across the nation are worried about the future health of today’s “sun-sessed” society. And this doesn’t even include the millions of people who are exposed to natural sunlight each day either through work, recreational, and/or other social activities, which also increases the risk of sun-related skin damage.
Tanning May Be a Substance-Related Disorder
For decades, health specialists have warned the public about the addictive characteristics and harmful effects of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. But what many people don’t know is that the latest “narcotic,” especially among teenage girls, is actually that giant ball of fire 91 million miles away from Earth.
If, for you, the emergence of the sun in the early morn means only one thing: it’s time to wake up, hit the beach, and sun tan, you could be a tanning addict. According to a report published by the American Academy of Dermatology, “individuals who chronically and repetitively expose themselves to UV light (UVL) to tan may have a novel type of UVL substance-related disorder.” Even though you may abstain from drugs and alcohol as a means to keep yourself healthy, your obsession with tanning can be as damaging, in a different way.
Why Tanning is Appealing
“In our society, a tan is associated with health and beauty,” says Lynn M. Haven, MD, practicing dermatologist and diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology. It’s also hard to maintain an active lifestyle and perform daily activities without being in the sun, she added.
Dr. Henry Gasiorowski of Greenwich Dermatology and Cosmetic Laser Surgery Center, also blames society’s look-obsessed culture for fueling “tanning mania.”
“Tanning addicts are like cosmetic junkies,” he says. “They think that they look better. As long as they think that, it becomes their reality, despite extensive evidence that tanning prematurely ages your skin and leads to skin cancer.”
What about UV light and Vitamin D?
The Indoor Tanning Association, however, is not prepared to go down that easy. Their official website denies that melanoma is connected to UV exposure from tanning beds and even claims that UVL promotes psychological and physical benefits, including the production of vitamin D, an essential vitamin for maintaining strong bones.
“This is a half-truth,” says Dr. Gasiorowski. “Some people obsessively use sunscreen and do have lower levels of vitamin D, but that is easily replaced by vitamin supplements. That’s like saying you need vitamin D and therefore you should go into the sun. But the cons are so much greater than the benefits. This is the tanning industry reaching for straws.”
UVA and UVB Rays and Cancer
There are two types of harmful UV rays that reach the earth: UVA and UVB. UVB rays mostly affect the top layer of the skin and primarily cause burning. UVA rays, on the other hand, penetrate deeper into the dermis than UVB rays and are mainly responsible for aging.
When the sun hits your skin it causes DNA damage. The fragments of DNA damage cause your cells to produce melanin, a skin pigment that is manufactured to help protect skin from ultraviolet rays, and creates the look of a tan. Damage to the DNA is what leads to skin cancer.
UVA rays, unlike UVB, can pass through glass windows. This is why skin cancer is found more often on the left side of the face in the U.S, where the opposite is true in countries where people drive on the other side of the road.
Skin Cancer is on the rise, regardless
Armed with the correct facts, “some people will take reasonable measures to protect themselves with sun tan lotion or hats,” says Dr. Haven. On the other hand, “other people just don’t want to.”
This seems to be the attitude held by most tanning addicts, and a large reason why skin cancer diagnoses in the U.S. are on the rise with about 60,000 new cases being reported each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Whether you are a tanning junkie or simply want to take preventative measures to keep your skin healthy and lower your risk of skin cancer, here are two tips for outdoor sun exposure.
Choose the right SPF. SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, refers only to UVB rays. In order to protect against both types of ultraviolet radiation, you need to choose a broad spectrum sunscreen. Some sunscreens are better at covering UVA than others. When reading the label, look for one these three ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or mexoryl.
Dr. Haven also suggests choosing your sunscreen based on activity levels. She recommends a minimum of SPF 15 if it’s the middle of a winter or a cloudy day, and a higher number if you are outside for a longer period time, such as with skiing, sailing, or any other type of outdoor sport.
Slather on the sunscreen. The best way to use sunscreen is to slather it on liberally and frequently. Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapplied every two hours.
“People think they can apply sunscreen once and they are okay, but the active ingredients are completely broken down after two hours,” says Dr. Gasiorowski. He recommends using Anthelios, a sunscreen recently approved by the FDA in SPF 15, which, unlike most other over the counter sunscreens, can last up to five hours without reapplying.
There is No Such Thing As a Safe Tan
According to Dr. Haven, the most important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as a safe tan.
“Damage can show up 20 or 30 years later,” she says. If someone wants the look of a tan without the harmful side effects, Dr. Haven encourages the use of fake spray tans, topical self-tanners, or make-up.
So, the next time you find yourself sans SPF, sprawled out on the beach or baking under a heat lamp in a local tanning boutique, remember this: A tan is only temporary, but skin damage is with you for life.
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