According to Dr. Mejia and experts, the answer is no. Even if you tan easily, your skin can still be damaged from harmful UV radiation that can cause extensive damage as you age. If you’ve ever heard there’s a “safe” way to tan while minimizing your chance of developing skin cancer, you’ve been misinformed. Let’s take a look at what’s really going on when you get a suntan, and how damaging tanning can be.
What is a Sun Tan?
While beautiful bronze skin may look appealing, the reality is this: A suntan is skin damage, plain and simple. It leads to premature aging and wrinkling. When your skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, it immediately attempts to protect itself from damage by increasing its production of melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its bronze hue. Beyond its skin-darkening nature, melanin works to absorb and dissipate harmful UV light, thereby protecting the delicate upper layers of your skin from burning.
When melanocytes, cells just below the surface of your skin, are exposed to UV radiation, your body instantly reacts in an attempt to protect itself. Immediately, melanocyte-stimulating hormone binds to these specialized skin cells to initiate melanin production. In essence, the moment you expose your skin to the sun, your body perceives an attack and throws up the only defense mechanism it has — a suntan.
Is a Suntan Dangerous?
We all perceive a suntan as being healthy and sexy. This was popularized early on by Sophia Loren. However, experts will agree that any level of suntan is a sign of skin damage. Skin damage is a cumulative, long-term exposure that can lead to serious consequences. While that beautiful bronze hue may be superficial, the damage it can cause extends far beyond the epidermis. Ultraviolet rays are capable of penetrating into the deeper layers of the skin, accelerating the aging process or, worse, causing dangerous cell mutations. This is one of the major factors that lead to basal and squamous cell carcinomas as well as melanomas.
As sun damage accumulates, UV light begins to damage DNA within your skin cells. A sunburn is an inflammatory response you experience from direct damage to your skin cells’ DNA. Typically it is due to the effects of UVB which are more of the burning rays. If the damage becomes severe enough, you’ll experience peeling and subsequent tissue replacement. This type of damage is directly linked to increased incidence of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, especially in individuals with naturally lighter skin tones. In fact, Caucasian individuals who experience five or more severe sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increase their chances of skin cancer by up to 80 percent! Even if you don’t burn, your skin is still subject to dangerous DNA mutations with continual UV exposure. One bad blistering sunburn in childhood can potentially double your chance of developing a melanoma.
Melanin, the molecule designed to protect your skin from ultraviolet rays, can cause indirect damage to skin cell DNA as a result of its reaction with oxygen molecules within your skin. Because oxygen is a highly reactive molecule with a relatively long lifespan, it is capable of damaging not only your pigment-producing melanocytes but surrounding cells, as well. Over time, as this damage accumulates, chances of developing the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, increase dramatically.
How Can You Protect Your Skin?
To shield your skin from damaging ultraviolet rays, experts recommend applying sun protection each time you plan to venture outdoors. Even if the day doesn’t appear to be particularly sunny, UV rays can still penetrate cloud cover, especially at high altitudes or in areas close to the equator. When the sun’s rays are most intense, typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher is highly recommended. We also recommend learning the shadow rule which is if your shadow is smaller than you, then the sun rays are most intense and sunblock is necessary.
Beyond wearing sun protection, you should avoid intentional exposure to UV radiation at all costs. Despite clever marketing tactics, tanning beds and booths are just as dangerous as the sun, if not more so. In fact, research estimates that individuals who use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk of developing melanoma by more than 75 percent! Most tanning beds use UVA and not the burning UVB rays. This allows people to get more exposure to UVA leading to melanomas.
Keep in mind that covering your skin does not always provide adequate protection. Just as UV rays are capable of penetrating cloud cover, they can also penetrate your clothing. Depending on the material, your clothing may block as little as five percent of harmful UV rays, so being diligent with your application of sun protection is essential.
Skin Care Specialists at Jupiter Dermatology
Despite its dangers, the ever-coveted sun tan remains wildly popular. While there’s no guarantee you’ll end up with skin cancer, there is simply no safe way to expose your skin to ultraviolet radiation. You are at much higher risk if you have fair light-colored skin. If tan skin is an absolute must, you still need to be checked out by a doctor. We recommend using a self-tanner. Regular checkups with a board-certified dermatologist can help you detect the early warning signs of skin cancer. To help protect your skin, contact our experienced team at Jupiter Dermatology to schedule your screening appointment today. Dr. Mejia specializes in Mohs skin cancer surgery and skin plastic surgery reconstruction. He prefers to meet you in different circumstances and therefore recommends regular use of sunblock.