It’s that time of year! Finally, put those winter clothes away. Skin is visible everywhere on campus. Images. Marketing. Culture.The fact is that Americans in their pursuit of the “healthy outdoor look” have put skin cancer at the top of the list as the number one cancer in the US. An estimated one million new cases will be diagnosed this year. Melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer of all kills one person every hour in the U.S
A history of the tan: For centuries, the upper class embraced parasols, brimmed hats and long sleeves as a fashionable way of avoiding the sun. Sun exposure was known to cause burns and tans. The privileged associated tanned skin with “demeaning” outdoor labor. Pale, untanned skin implied a genteel lifestyle. In the mid-1900s a new image emerged. This new, “healthy,” however, outdoor, sexy look included revealing more skin-tan skin. By the year 2000, a $5 billion dollar industry in indoor tanning was flourishing with 25,000 salons used by 28 million Americans annually. And for those suntanners that escaped skin cancer, there is a booming market in cosmetic dermatology, including the popular botox, chemical peels and laser dermabrasion to eliminate the lines, wrinkles and blotches from life long, cumulative sun exposure. By the way, this new American image of healthy, outdoor ruggedness spawned in the 1950s also included smoking cigarettes and we now know how healthy that is.
How skin goes from pale to tan: There are two types of ultraviolet rays in sunlight, which penetrate the skin and cause damage. They are UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are longer in length and are thought to contribute to skin aging and skin cancer. UVB rays are shorter and more intense. They are thought to actually cause skin aging and skin cancer. You cannot see or feel UV radiation on your skin. Eighty percent of UV rays penetrate right through light clouds, mist and fog, which explains getting a sunburn on cloudy days. Tanning salons and sunlamps use UV radiation to “tan” the skin. The effects are comparable and just as damaging as outdoor sun exposure.
As UV rays penetrate the skin, the melanocyte cells produce more melanin. This brown pigment tries to protect the skin by absorbing the ultraviolet radiation and preventing it from penetrating deeper into the underlying tissues. The melanin makes the skin take on a darker appearance. This is what we call a tan. So, a tan is actually a sign that the skin has been damaged.
A tan is an injury to the skin with redness, tenderness and sometimes blistering. The pink or red color on the surface of the skin happens because the blood vessels under the surface expand to allow more blood to flow and accumulate just under the skin’s surface. The tenderness and sometimes blistering happens because the skin cells are injured, both at and below the surface of the skin. So, a sunburn is a sign that the skin is damaged.
Unfortunately, studies now show that damage from a sunburn does not go away. The surface of the skin heals, but the underlying structures are damaged. With each sunburn, the damage accumulates in the skin cells. The skin becomes weakened as a result and skin cancer risk increases. Although fair-skinned people are at the greatest risk, all skin types are at risk for skin damage from UV radiation. Sun exposure is most dangerous in young people up to the age of 20 because their skin cells are especially vulnerable to irreversible damage.
UV radiation also effects the cells of the eye. Over-exposure to UV rays can result in an increased risk for cataracts later in life. A cataract occurs when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy and milky in appearance.
Recommendations for safer tanning: 1) Don’t deliberately sunbathe. 2) Apply sunscreen to exposed skin 20 minutes before outdoor activities. 3) Sunscreen should protect against UVA and UVB rays (sometimes labeled as broad spectrum). 4) The minimum SPF should be 15. 5) Reapplication every two to three hours is recommended regardless of claims to be waterproof and sweat proof. 6) Check expiration date. 7) Expensive doesn’t mean better. 8) Cosmetics should contain sunscreen for year round protection. 9) Extra care should be taken between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun is strongest. 10) Sunglasses should have UV protection on the label. Use them daily. Hats are popular again. They protect the skin and eyes.