To many people, summer means hanging out at the pool or the beach, soaking up rays
in pursuit of a golden tan. But before you put on your bathing suit and head to the
pool (or pay for a bed or booth in a tanning
salon), there are a few things to think about when it comes to your skin and sun
How Tanning Happens
The sun's rays contain two types of ultraviolet radiation that reach your skin:
UVA and UVB. UVB radiation burns the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), causing
UVA radiation is what makes people tan. UVA rays penetrate to the lower layers
of the epidermis, where they trigger cells called melanocytes (pronounced:
mel-an-oh-sites) to produce melanin. Melanin is
the brown pigment that causes tanning.
Melanin is the body's way of protecting skin from burning. Darker-skinned people
tan more deeply than lighter-skinned people because their melanocytes produce more
melanin. But just because a person doesn't burn does not mean that he or she is also
protected against skin cancer and other problems.
UVA rays may make you tan, but they can also cause serious damage. That's because
UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays. UVA rays can go all the way
through the skin's protective epidermis to the dermis, where blood vessels and nerves
Because of this, UVA rays may damage a person's immune system, making it harder
to fight off diseases and leading to illnesses like melanoma,
the most serious type of skin cancer. Melanoma can kill. If it's not found and treated,
it can quickly spread from the skin to the body's other organs.
Skin cancer is epidemic in the United States, with more than 1 million new cases
diagnosed every year. Although the numbers of new cases of many other types of cancer
are falling or leveling off, the number of new melanoma cases is growing.
In the past, melanoma mostly affected people in their fifties or older, but today
dermatologists see patients in their twenties and even late teens with this type of
cancer. Experts believe this is partly due to an increase in the use of tanning beds
and sun lamps, which have high levels of UVA rays. Getting a sunburn or intense sun
exposure may also increase a person's chances of developing this deadly cancer.
Exposure to UVB rays also increases your risk of getting two other types of skin
cancer: basal and squamous cell carcinoma.
The main treatment for skin cancers is cutting the tumors out. Since many basal
or squamous cell carcinomas are on the face and neck, surgery to remove them can leave
people with facial scars. The scars from surgery to remove melanomas can be anywhere
on the body, and they're often large.
Cancer isn't the only problem associated with UV exposure. UVA damage is the main
factor in premature skin aging. To get a good idea of how sunlight affects the skin,
look at your parents' skin and see how different it is from yours. Much of that is
due to sun exposure, not the age difference!
UV rays can also lead to another problem we associate with old people: the eye
Staying out of the sun altogether may seem like the only logical answer. But who
wants to live like a hermit? The key is to enjoy the sun sensibly, finding a balance
between sun protection and those great summer activities like beach volleyball and
Sunscreens block or change the effect of the sun's harmful rays. They're one of
your best defenses against sun damage because they protect you without interfering
with your comfort and activity levels.
The SPF number on a sunscreen shows the level of UVB protection it gives. Sunscreens
with a higher SPF number provide more defense against the sun's damaging UV rays.
Here are some tips to enjoy the great outdoors while protecting your skin and eyes
from sun damage:
Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day, even on cloudy days
and when you don't plan on spending much time outdoors. Wearing sunscreen
every day is essential because as much as 80% of sun exposure is incidental —
the type you get from walking your dog or eating lunch outside. If you don't want
to wear a pure sunscreen, try a moisturizer with sunscreen in it, but make sure you
put on enough.
Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
Ideally, it should also be hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic so it doesn't cause a
rash or clog your pores.
Reapply sunscreen every 1½ to 2 hours. If you're not sure
you're putting on enough, switch to sunscreen with a higher SPF, like SPF 30. No matter
what the SPF, the sun can break down the UVA ingredients in sunscreen. Even if you
don't get a sunburn, UVA rays could still be doing unseen damage to your skin.
Reapply sunscreen after swimming or sweating.
Take frequent breaks. The sun's rays are strongest between 10:00
A.M. and 4:00 P.M. During those hours, take breaks to cool off indoors or in the shade
for a while before heading out again.
Wear a hat with a brim and sunglasses that provide almost 100% protection
against ultraviolet radiation.
Other things to know when it comes to avoiding sun damage:
You probably know that water is a major reflector of UV radiation — but
so are sand, concrete, and even snow. Snow skiing and other winter activities carry
significant risk of sunburn, so always apply sunblock before hitting the slopes.
Certain medications, such as antibiotics used to treat acne and birth control
pills, can increase your sun sensitivity (as well as your sensitivity to tanning beds).
Ask your doctor whether your medications might have this effect and what you should
Avoid tanning "accelerators" or tanning pills that claim to speed up the body's
production of melanin or darken the skin. There's no proof that they work and they
aren't approved by government agencies for tanning purposes.
Even when you're serious about protecting your skin, you may sometimes want the
glow of a tan. Luckily, many products on the market — but not sun lamps
or tanning beds — will let you tan safely and sun-free.
One safe way to go bronze is with sunless self-tanners. These "tans in a bottle"
contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which gradually stains the dead cells in your skin's
outer layer. The "tan" lasts until these skin cells slough off, so exfoliating or
vigorously washing will make the color fade faster. Typically, self-tanners last from
several days to a week.
You may have to try a few brands of self-tanner to find one that looks best with
your skin tone. For a subtle, goof-proof glow, try moisturizers that contain a modest
amount of fake tanner, letting you gradually build up a little color without blotches
and staining — or the smell that some people dislike. All of these options are
cheap, too, usually around $10.
Ask a friend to help you apply self-tanner to spots you can't reach, like your
back. And be sure to wash your hands as soon as you finish applying the tanner. Areas
of your body that don't normally tan (like the palms of your hands or soles of the
feet) just look dirty if you leave tanner on them.
With self-tanners, you get better results if you exfoliate your skin with a scrub
brush or loofah before the tanner is applied. This evens your skin tone and removes
dead skin cells.
If you use a sunless tanner, you'll need to wear plenty of sunscreen when
you go outdoors to protect you from the sun's rays. Self-tanners don't generate
melanin production, so they won't protect you against sunburn (and some scientists
believe they might even make skin more susceptible to sun damage).
If you're thinking about using a sunless tanner, it's a good idea to avoid
airbrush or spray-on tans. The FDA hasn’t approved DHA for use internally
or on mucous membranes (like the lips). Spray tans may have unknown health risks because
people can breathe in the spray, or the tanner may end up on their lips or eye area.