Exposing the Truth about Tanning and the World’s Most Common Cancer

It is official. Spring has sprung, bringing along with it spring fever. I can see it in my students’ eyes. They are practically breaking out in hives itching to soak up the warm spring sun, despite the fact they are sitting in a class that discusses skin cancer prevention.

Alas, despite their instructor’s desperate pleadings, these 20-something-year-old college students find it difficult, if not arduous, to forego their so-called “need to tan” that Hollywood constantly feeds and propagates.

And while it is quite simply impossible for anyone to get a “safe tan” from tanning beds and other forms of ultraviolet radiation, there are several high-quality sunless tanning mousses that not only achieve that coveted bronze look, naturally, but also provide essential sun protection. Now my students, even my pageant girls, can have the best of both worlds.

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They no longer have to walk into class with guilt-ridden faces knowing they have completely disregarded the very real dangers associated with using tanning beds. They are happy and healthy.

And that makes me, the now dubbed “skin cancer crusader” happy, too.

Yet, despite the fact I am slowly replacing their love for tanning with a safe alternative—that of sunless tanning foams such as those developed and manufactured by Neostrata (which garnered the prestigious Gold Triangle Award from the American Academy of Dermatology in 2005), there remains a deeply pressing concern; a lingering question. How do we educators and advocates effectively tackle the culture of tanning, and thus significantly reduce the alarming increase in skin cancer incidence and mortality as a result of frequenting tanning salons?

Contrary to popular belief, the bottom-line is that there is no such thing as a “safe” tan. Any tan is damage to your skin. And that is a fact. The Indoor Tanning Association (ITA) would have the consumer-driven pop culture hold to the myth that tanning beds are safe, and are even a viable way of treating a variety of skin issues such as acne, or even Seasonal Affective Disorder. Such claims are false, even irresponsible and potentially deadly, and credible scientific research proves it. There is no way to achieve a safe, healthy tan from tanning beds or other sources of ultraviolet radiation.

Consider the following case-and-point.

The American Academy of Dermatology, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently conducted a lengthy and independent research study which sheds some light on this issue, thus proving valuable insight into a media-inundated industry wrought with misleading, confusing, and even erroneous claims about tanning. They discovered, through numerous surveys, that more than 61% of women 18 and older (and 69% of men) equate a tan with beauty and health (www.aad.org/aad/Newsroom).

Despite the fact that we know that there is no such thing as a safe tan, people still associate bronzed skin with beauty and health,” said Dr. Darrel S. Rigel, clinical professor at New York University Medical Center.

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“What’s even more surprising is that the survey showed that 62 % of men and women responded that they know someone who has or had skin cancer, which – depending on its location and severity – does nothing to improve your looks and can be very detrimental to your health.”

Dr. Elizabeth Whitmore, who, like Dr. Rigel, is a member of the AAD, agrees. “People continue to invest both time and money into visiting tanning salons despite evidence which have found an increased incidence of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer— in those who visit indoor tanning salons.” Joyce Ayoub, director of public information at the Skin Cancer Foundation further attests to this fact.

“There is a myth that people like to believe, but it is a myth; not fact. Any tan means damage to the skin.”

Further illustrating this point is a study headed by a team of scientists and researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. These researchers discovered that the use of tanning beds and artificial tanning light sources—even just once, can, indeed, lead to molecular changes in the skin that may lead to cancer. “In comparing the effects of a teenager who was exposed for the first dose of tanning beds to multiple doses […] it is evident that there is damage sustained to the molecular structure of the skin even having only been exposed once,” Whitmore says.

The researchers at Johns Hopkins, who conducted the study of 10 teenagers who were exposed to full-body tanning beds over a period of two weeks which, she says was similar to the routine “a teenager preparing for prom or for a tropical vacation” would undertake. The researched found that the subjects’ skin and blood, (which was carefully analyzed both prior to the UV exposure and after the exposure) had two distinct markers that indicated molecular change.

Whitmore adds, “It’s another indication that there is biologic activity and that there is cell damage when the skin is exposed to UV rays.

This repair process can eventually fail to do its job completely or correctly causing the cells to replicate abnormally […] this breakdown in the normal functioning of cells can lead to malignant cancer.”

In actual fact, the AAD asserts that nearly 90% of skin carcinomas are a result of over-exposure to UV rays. Thusly, The Cancer Crusaders Organization (www.cancercrusaders.org) randomly surveyed college-aged students (18-to-25), and found that nearly 100% reported to having used a tanning bed at least once in their lifetime.

After having been apprised of the risks and dangers associated with tanning, many were undeterred. “Not only does tanning help my acne, it helps me a lot during this time of year when there’s a great deal of pressure with upcoming finals and during the stresses of the holidays,” says Amanda Gusciano, a senior Brigham Young University.

“Even though, I am aware of the dangers of tanning, there is still that temptation; I haven’t stopped using tanning beds and I never use sunscreens.”

The significance protecting your skin from the harmful affects of UV-B and UV-A rays goes almost without saying; however, I emphasize it emphatically to both my students and especially to my pageant contestants.

UV-B and UV-A rays have varied affects on your skin, your immune system, and your body as a whole. UV-B irradiation disrupts the melanocytes, causing them to release the “redness” known as sunburn. Any change in the color of your skin as a result of over-exposure to the sun is damage to your skin, even if your skin tends to “tan” as opposed to burn.

All changes in the color of your skin as a result of UV exposure is the melanocytes in your skin (the cells responsible for pigmentation) trying to tell you that normal, healthy cells have been severely disrupted. Have you ever left basketball outside in the hot summer sun for a lengthy period of time? And after you retrieved the ball, you immediately notice that the elasticity of the ball is weakened—it feels “rubbery” and never quite “bounces back”? This is exactly what happens to your skin as a result of prolonged UV exposure.

Both UV-B and UV-A rays have cumulative effects and coupled together can lead to melanoma skin cancer.

In sum, if you must heed the need to be golden, opt for sunless tanning mousses. There are quality dermatologically-approved sunless tanning mousses available that are reasonably priced, and will give you evenly distributed color, but will do it without the harmful affects of UV-rays.

Now you can have the best of both worlds— good looks and good health.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article.
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