Looking tan year round has become one of the latest crazes… and can be achieved easily with the growing convenience of tanning beds. These healthy looking tans can come with a variety of risks and chronic health complications.
Some key terms to help understand tanning…
Epidermis – the outermost layer of your skin…this is the layer that is continually produced and shed throughout your lifetime
Dermis – the layer of skin below the epidermis. This layer contains blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue.
Melanin – a brown pigment that causes tanning
Melanocytes – skin cells that produce melanin
Melanoma – the most common type of skin cancer, begun by malfunctioning skin cells. This may develop as a new mole (a cluster of melanocytes) or the spread of an existing mole. Carcinogen – cancer causing substance
UV radiation – listed by U.S. National Toxicology Program as a carcinogen
UVA – ultraviolet rays that penetrate into the lower layers of the epidermis, triggering the melanocytes, causing tanning of the skin. These are the rays linked to causing premature skin aging.
UVB – ultraviolet rays that cause burning and penetration of the epidermis (like sunburn). These are the rays linked to causing skin cancer.
Vitamin D – vitamin that supports bone health, linked to reduction of risk for several cancers. Sources of this vitamin include sun exposure, milk (and certain other foods), and supplements.
DHA – (Dihydroxyacetone) a chemical color additive used in sunless tanning solutions. Causes brown/black melanoidins to attach to dead skin cells on the outermost layer of your skin.
Tanning of the skin is achieved by exposing your skin to a source that produces UVA rays…namely the sun or a tanning bed. The UVA rays damage the DNA in the melanocytes in your skin and cause a release of melanin, producing a tanned look to the skin. So, with a tan also comes damaged skin cells. The cells damaged in this process can sometimes malfunction in a certain way, beginning the development of skin cancer.
The sun produces both UVA and UVB rays. About 95% of the suns rays that reach the earth are UVA rays and the other 5% are UVB. UVA rays penetrate deep into the lower layers of the epidermis and can even reach the dermis. This type of UV radiation is responsible for tanning of the skin and islinked to causes of premature aging of the skin. UVB rays do not penetrate as deep and only reach the epidermis. These are the harmful rays that are linked to causes of skin cancer like melanoma. On a positive note, the sun’s rays help synthesize Vitamin D in your skin. However, the sun is not the only source of Vitamin D for your body. Vitamin D is available in adequate amounts from supplements and from different foods like milk, eggs, certain fish, and butter.
Tanning beds are advertised as producing mostly UVA rays, however some may produce small amounts of UVB as well. The bulbs in a tanning bed emit about three times the amount of UVA radiation as the sun does. This results in your skin absorbing a larger amount of rays than you would in the sun. The UVB concentration is lower than that of the sun, but pretty close. A 2007 study revealed that the use of a tanning bed by anyone under the age of 35 increased his or her risk of developing skin cancer by 75%. If the risk of skin cancer isn’t enough to keep you away, maybe the risk of permanent eye damage, cataracts, immunosuppression, accelerated skin aging, and risk of burns should dissuade you from tanning. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or have questions and concerns about your skin, make an appointment to see you doctor.
Sunless Tanning Options
Spray tans are often referred to as one type of “sunless tanning” option for those trying to avoid the sun’s harmful rays, while achieving that desired glowing skin color. The spray tan solution is applied to a person’s bare skin by a mist, usually by a professional at a salon.
A “self tanner” is another sunless tanning option that comes in the form of a lotion, applied by oneself. Many of these lotions allow you to build up the color of your tan because of the amount of color additive included.
One of the popular chemicals contained in sunless tanners is called Dihydroxyacetone or “DHA”. This chemical reacts with the epidermis to produce brown/black compounds (melanoidins) which are deposited in the skin. DHA basically stains the dead cells on your epidermis over a period of time. Tanning agents that use DHA reach their maximum color within 24 hours of application and can last up to 5-7 days. The color disappears when these skins cells are exfoliated or slough off.
DHA has been studied and found to produce some breakage in the DNA in some bacteria, however has not proved to be carcinogenic in animal trials. DHA is the only color additive approved by the FDA to be used in self tanning lotions.
PLEASE NOTE: the use of DHA in spray tanning is not yet approved by the FDA. This is because DHA has not been tested on certain mucous membranes like the eyes or lips. Spray tanning is applied via mist, thus making it difficult to avoid chemicals entering the eyes, nose, mouth, and even lungs.
Practice Safe Sunning
Even though the best way to preserve your skin would be to avoid the sun and UV radiation entirely, that is very unrealistic.
Here are some ways to help keep your skin healthy when you are in the sun…
- Wear a sunscreen with at least a 15 spf when you are outdoors. Make sure this sunscreen blocks both UVA or UVB rays. Even when it’s cloudy the sun can peek through and penetrate your skin.
- Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure.
- Remember to reapply your sunscreen every 1.5 to 2 hours, more frequently if you are sweating or swimming outside.
- The sun’s rays are the strongest and most damaging between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. If you can, take breaks indoors during these hours.
- Hats and sunglasses are good tools in addition to sunscreen to help protect you from the sun.
- If you are taking certain medications like antibiotics, skin or acne medication, and/or birth control, your skin may be more sensitive to sun exposure. Talk to your doctor about how to protect your skin.