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The “Healthy Glow” of a Tan is Anything But

woman tanning on the beach with an exclamation point drawn on her back with sunscreen

It took nearly 100 years, but the appeal of tanning is starting to fade. Popularized in the 1920s by fashion icon Coco Chanel, a tanned body came to represent good health and a relaxed lifestyle. Today, we know the reality is quite different.

“Purposely exposing yourself to ultraviolet (UV) rays—either from the sun or tanning beds—can be extremely damaging to your skin,” says Emily Chu, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). “Fortunately, people are much more aware of this than in the past, but that doesn’t always mean they are protecting themselves adequately.”

According to the American Cancer Society, the number of cases of melanoma is increasing rapidly, particularly among women between the ages of 20 and 40. Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer, and once it has spread the typical survival rate is only five years. In most cases, melanoma can be tied directly to exposure to UV rays.

“By reducing UV exposure, people can greatly decrease their risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers," says Lynn Schucter, MD, Chief of the Division of Hematology Oncology at HUP.

Steps to Protect Yourself from UV Rays

Fortunately, skin cancers can largely be prevented if steps are taken to shield the skin from UV rays over a person’s lifetime. These steps include:

  • Cover up: When you are out in the sun, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible. Also consider sun-protective clothing, which blocks the sun’s rays more effectively than regular clothing. Look for clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating from 15 (good) to 50+ (excellent).
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with SPF of at least 30. Be sure to reapply at least every two hours, as well as after swimming or sweating. And don’t skimp—most people don’t put enough sunscreen on.
  • Seek shade: Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps: Both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer. Those looking for a “glow” can try spray tanning or lotions.

These recommendations are for everyone, including children and people with dark skin tones. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just people with lighter skin who are at higher risk of skin cancer. People of any skin color can be affected.

Part of the problem with sun exposure is that the negative effects may not appear for years. This can lead to a false sense of security, especially among young people.

It’s a little like smoking: people know it’s not good for you but they don’t see an immediate impact on their health or skin,” says Dr. Chu. “But UV exposure eventually catches up with you, especially cosmetically. In fact, most changes commonly attributed to aging—including wrinkles, leathery skin and brown spots—are associated with UV exposure. People always ask me what antiaging product they should use and I always tell them sunscreen.”

Both Drs. Chu and Schucter say it’s never too late to take steps to protect yourself from UV exposure.

Even if you were careless in your youth with sunbathing or tanning beds, you can still take precautions like wearing sunscreen and getting regular skin checks that can help reduce your future risks of developing skin cancer,” says Dr. Schucter. “And start good habits now with your kids, the dividends will pay off the rest of their lives.”

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