The Truth About Tanning: 10 Facts About Sun Protection & Preventing Skin Cancer

With summer fast approaching and May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, it’s never been more important to know the facts about sun protection, especially in light of recent medical findings. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, studies have shown an estimated 350% increase in non-melanoma skin cancers since 1994 and the incidence of melanoma continues to rise. What’s more, the FDA is expected to impose new restrictions and taxes on indoor tanning beds based on studies that have linked their use to a higher risk of skin cancer.

While skin cancer is now the most common cancer in the United States it is also one of the most preventable and treatable.  Contrary to popular belief, you only receive about 23% of your lifetime sun exposure by the age of 18 – not 80% as is commonly thought – so it’s never too late to begin protecting your skin from the sun.  Here are 10 facts you should know about sun protection and preventing skin cancer:

1. The incidence of skin cancer has reached epidemic levels: One in five Americans will have skin cancer at some point in their lives.  Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the lung, prostate and breast. About 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers and the majority of melanomas are associated with exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

2. Just because you don’t burn doesn’t mean you’re not damaging your skin: “It’s a common misconception that burning, not tanning, is damaging to your skin. The reality is there is no such thing as a healthy tan,” says Stuart Zweibel, MD, PHD, a dermatologist with Westchester Health Associates, a clinical affiliate of The Mount Sinai Medical Center. “A tan is actually your body’s attempt to protect itself from the sun’s harmful rays and is a symptom of the sun damage that is occurring beneath the surface of the skin.”

3. Protect your skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more: A broad spectrum sunscreen provides protection against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and an SPF 30 will provide most people with adequate protection if used properly. However if you’re very fair you may need to use a sunscreen with a higher SPF to protect against burning, depending on the amount of time you’re exposed to the sun.

4. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors: Sunscreen ingredients need time to bind to the skin to be effective. If you apply it at the beach you could get burned in the time it takes for it to work. Be sure to apply sunscreen over all exposed skin and even on cloudy days when as much as 40% of the sun’s rays reach the earth’s surface. Reapply every 2 hours and immediately after swimming and heavy sweating.

5. When choosing a sunscreen look for broad spectrum sunscreens that contain ingredients such as Avobenzone (Parsol 1789), Mexoryl or zinc or titanium oxide: According to Dr. Zweibel, these ingredients are particularly effective at blocking the widest spectrum of ultraviolet light including UVA  which is largely responsible for the deeper damage that can lead to skin cancer and premature signs of aging.

6. Avoid the midday sun: The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. are when the sun is the strongest and can do the most damage. “One of the most important things you can do to protect your skin besides applying a sunscreen is to manage your exposure time and wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses,” says Samuel Beran, MD, a plastic surgeon with Westchester Health Associates. Limiting exposure to the sun will also help prevent many of the visible skin changes attributed to aging – wrinkles, brown spots and sagging skin – that are mostly caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

7. Protect children from sun exposure: Keep newborns out of the sun. For children six months and over, apply sunscreen, and make sure they have on protective clothing including a hat. Seek out the shade during playtime.

8. Don’t use Tanning Beds: Growing concerns about the dangers of indoor tanning have recently led to new taxes and restrictions to help deter the practice among young people. Contrary to what tanning parlors may claim, the radiation that comes from indoor tanning is as damaging to the skin, if not more, as direct, prolonged exposure to sunlight, and the UVA rays used in the machines penetrate deeper into the skin. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, studies have found that individuals exposed to tanning beds under the age of 35 have a 75% increased risk of getting melanoma. What’s more, tanning booths increase the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers.

9. Know the warning signs of skin cancer: A skin growth that changes in size and appears pearly, translucent, brown, black, tan or multicolored; a mole or birthmark that changes color or texture or increases in thickness, is irregular in outline and larger than the head of an eraser; a spot or sore that continues to itch, scab or bleed and does not heal within 3 weeks. If you notice one of the signs above see a physician, preferably one that specializes in diseases of the skin.

10. Get a professional skin exam once a year: While it’s important to examine your own skin on a regular basis for any suspicious lesions, a dermatologist is trained to spot abnormalities you might not pick up through a self-exam.

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