Sun Sense

By Maureen Sangiorgio

The cold, dreary winter is finally over and you can’t WAIT for the first warm, sunny day to lie out and soak up the sun’s rays. Tans look so sexy, yet thoughts of malignant melanoma run through your head. Truth be told, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer­­— and rates are rising. So is there really a smart way to tan? According to the experts I interviewed, there is. Before you head to the beach to turn from boring to bronze, find out how you can tan safely.

Tanning Methods and their Risks

There are several ways to tan: outdoor exposure to the sun, tanning beds, salon spray tans and sunless self-tanning lotions. According to melanoma expert Sanjiv S. Agarwala, M.D., spray tans and self-tanning lotions are the way to go. “As far as we know, spray tans and self-bronzing creams are very safe,” says Dr. Agarwala, also a medical oncologist at St. Luke’s Hospital and Health Network. “You get an instant tan, and you will look just as nice with no risk of skin cancer.

No one has to know you got your beautiful tan safely at a salon.

I see absolutely no reason why someone would want to lie out in the sun to get a suntan. Lying in the sun all day puts you at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.”

Dr. Agarwala also does not advise turning to tanning beds. “A tanning bed is even worse than natural outdoor sunlight because it provides more concentrated ultraviolet (UV) exposure. So if you lie in the booth for 15-30 minutes, it’s the equivalent of spending several hours in the sun. Because the risk of skin cancer is quite significant, I strongly discourage the use of tanning beds.”

Alaina Lambert, manager of Salon Bronze in Bethlehem, offers this perspective: “Indoor tanning is smart tanning because it is in a controlled environment. We can control the amount of UV light you’re getting. Different tanning beds offer different concentrations of UV light. We recommend you gradually work up a base tan without burning. We consider burning to be damage to your skin, where a tan is technically your natural sunproof protection. Overexposure to UV light, whether it’s indoors or out, can lead to skin cancer and wrinkles.”

According to Lambert, they skin-type each person when he or she comes in. “The paler the skin, the less time we let them stay in the tanning bed. We gradually work up clients one or two minutes at a time so they build up their tan without burning.”

The Role of Vitamin D

Granted, the sun is an important, free and easy source of Vitamin D. Also called the “Sunshine Vitamin,” our bodies manufacture Vitamin D when sunlight meets our bare skin. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, promotes bone growth and protects against osteoporosis. Experts recommend about 200 – 400 IUs per day, depending on your age. The higher your age, the more Vitamin D you need. “What’s important to note here is that you can get all the Vitamin D you need by just getting outside in the sun for about 10-15 minutes each day,” says Dr. Agarwala. Besides supplements, good food sources of Vitamin D include fortified dairy products, cod liver oil, salmon, and tuna.

Bronze Beauty Basics

There are two types of UV radiation: UV-A causes tanning, premature aging and wrinkles while UV-B causes sunburns. Both types can damage your skin and cause skin cancer. “Apply sunscreen every day before you go outside,” advises Dr. Agarwala. “Look for products with an SPF of 30 or higher, that are broad-spectrum, which means they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. If you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time, apply every two hours. If you’re going to be active outside, or are swimming, apply more often. This may be a surprise to some of your readers, but sunscreen products do not prevent tanning, so {people} can still get their tans.”

“We recommend a barrier-type sunscreen instead of the more commonly-used, popular suntan lotions,” says Lambert. “Barrier sunscreens are different in that they are thick and white and stay that way on the skin. They coat the skin to reflect light away from the body. These products contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and are generally found in health-food stores or the natural section of large grocery and department stores.”

Get tanning bed savvy. If you do decide to use a tanning bed, Lambert suggests you prepare your skin beforehand with skin-care products specially formulated for tanning bed use: “They do not have an SPF, but they have moisturizers and antioxidants to keep your skin looking healthy.” It’s also critical to wear protective eye goggles in the booth because the UV rays can penetrate the skin. “Eyelids are very thin, and the skin around the eye is delicate, so going in without goggles can cause eye damage,” says Elyse Simons, owner, Nail Salon Etc. and Bronze Body Boutique location. In addition, come summer, prepare to pay a bit more for all tanning salon services. “The federal health-care initiative has just levied a new tax on all tanning bed use,” notes Simons. “Starting in July, consumers will have to pay a ten percent tanning tax on top of the regular fee.”

Time it right. “Try to stay out of the sun between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest,” says Dr. Agarwala. If your shadow appears shorter than you are, seek shade. And don’t forget to wear sunglasses, which protect the sensitive skin around the eyes and may reduce the long-term risk of developing cataracts.

Pop on a hat. “You can also wear a wide-brimmed hat if you know you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time,” says Dr. Agarwala. Also, wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants as often as possible.

Inventory your medicine cabinet. Some medications can increase sensitivity to the sun. Examples include tetracycline antibiotics, sulfonamides such as Bactrim and NSAIDS such as ibuprofen. Cosmetics that contain alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs) may also increase sun sensitivity and the possibility of sunburn. Protect your skin from the sun while using AHA-containing products and for a week after discontinuing their use.

Consider your surroundings. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends you use extra caution near water, snow and sand because they reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun, increasing your chances of sunburn.

Check yourself. The AAD also recommends you check your entire body, and/or have someone else do it for you, each year on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is treatable when caught early. More than 90 percent of all skin cancers occur on sun-exposed skin. The face, neck, ears, forearms and hands are the most common places to find skin cancer.

Are You At Risk?

More than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society. If you have any of these risk factors, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist for more smart tanning tips:
• Fair skinned
• Sunburns
• Repeated exposure to tanning devices or medical and industrial x-rays
• Hampered immune system
• Family history

Early Detection is Key

Know these warning signs of malignant melanoma:
• Changes in the surface of a mole
• Scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a new mole that looks different from others
• Spread of pigment from the border of a mole into surrounding skin
• Change in sensation including itchiness, tenderness or pain

Maureen Sangiorgio is a nationally-published, award-winning consumer health writer based in Macungie, PA.

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