Health Break | Published May 12, 2008 | Written by Aileen S. Galley, ACSW, LSW, administrative director, Cancer Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center, former chair of the Pink Zone Committee

No Such Thing As A Safe Tan

Kim, a young student, asked me recently what advice I would give to people who want to get a healthy tan. The question didn't allow me to provide the answer she had expected.

There is no such thing as a "healthy tan". Tanning is a form of skin damage. Tanning occurs when ultraviolet (UV) radiation is absorbed by the skin, causing an increase in the activity and number of melanocytes, the cells that make the pigment melanin.

The response felt more scolding than I intended, but the message is clear. Our culture tends to view tanning as desirable, describing people with tans as looking healthy and rested. People often say they feel better with a tan, or that tanning clears up their skin. Working with people who have faced a diagnosis of skin cancer provides me a different perspective.

Teenagers and young adults are going to tanning beds in increasing numbers. The rates of skin cancer are also going up. Currently, more than 1 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States (American Cancer Society). The World Health Organization issued a report in 2005 on the cancer causing effects of tanning beds. It urges people under the age of 18 not to use them.

Skin cancers are one result of getting too much UV exposure. This exposure is equally harmful whether it comes from the sun or from tanning beds or sun lamps. Other ill effects include causes prematurely aged skin, wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, dark patches, sometimes called "age spots", and pre-cancerous skin changes such as the dry, scaly, rough-textured patches called actinic keratoses.

The UV rays from the sun or tanning beds also increase a person's risk of cataracts and certain other eye problems and can suppress their immune system. Although dark-skinned people are generally less likely to get skin cancer than light-skinned people, they can still get cataracts and immune system suppression.

We are fortunate to live in a climate that allows a wide variety of outdoor activities. Cautions about sun exposure are not intended to discourage people from being outside. Thankfully, there are ways to protect the skin that do not have to interfere with our enjoyment of being outdoors.

Some people think about sun protection only when they are going to the pool. Instead, if we can think of all of our time out of doors as sun exposure, we can get in the habit of wearing sunscreen on a daily basis. There are wonderful moisturizers with sunscreen sun protection factor (SPF) 15 in them, the recommended amount, that do not feel greasy. For people in and out of their cars, sunscreens now come in towel wipes, making it convenient to apply just to exposed areas. Daycares are now in the habit of applying sunscreen to children before time outdoors. It's a habit we can then enforce at home. Other methods of protection are covering up sun-exposed areas with a light-weight shirt—some are now even UV resistant. It is important to wear a hat and sunglasses too, as tops of heads and eyes are at risk.

So Kim, I know I did not give the advice you sought on healthy tanning, but I am surely thankful that you asked the question.

Aileen S. Galley, ACSW, LSW is the Administrative Director of Penn State Cancer Institute at Mount Nittany Medical Center.