Want to banish your pale skin in favor of a deep, dark tan? Join
the club. Especially when summer looms, many people start
considering the best way to get that sun-bronzed glow - turning to
self-tanners, tanning booths, a stretch in the sun, or a
combination of these.
To lots of people, summer means hanging out at the pool or the
beach, soaking up rays and baking in the sun in pursuit of the
perfect golden tan. Indeed, most Americans, including up to 80% of
people under age 25, think they look better with a tan.
But before you don your bathing suit and head to the pool - or
into a tanning booth - spend a few minutes finding out about your
skin and sun exposure. These facts can help you get the look you
want without stressing your skin.
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 sunburns.
UVA radiation is what makes people tan. UVA rays penetrate to
the lower layers of the epidermis, where they trigger cells called
-oh-sites) to produce
. 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
are found. Because of this, UVA rays may damage a person's
immune system, making it harder to fight off diseases and leading
to illnesses like
, the most serious (and deadly) 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 annually. Although the numbers of new
cases of many other types of cancer are falling or leveling off,
the number of new cases of melanoma 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.
Doctors also think that UVB rays play a role in the development
of melanoma. That's because a sunburn or intense sun exposure
may increase a person's chances of developing this deadly
Exposure to UVB rays also increases your risk of getting two
other types of skin cancer:
squamous cell carcinoma
The main treatment for skin cancers is excision - 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 to the dermis 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 see to be 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 or sunblocks, which block the sun's harmful rays,
are one of your best defenses against sun damage because they
protect you without interfering with your comfort and activity
The SPF number on a sunscreen shows the level of 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 15 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
and give you acne.
- Apply sunscreen thickly and frequently. If you're not
sure you're putting on enough, switch to one with a higher
SPF. Regardless of the SPF, always reapply sunscreen after a
couple of hours. Most broad-spectrum sunscreens are more
effective at blocking UVB rays than UVA rays. So even if you
don't get a sunburn, UVA rays could still be doing unseen
damage to your skin.
- Reapply sunscreen every 2 to 3 hours and after swimming or
sweating. In the direct sun, wear a sunscreen with a higher SPF,
like SPF 30. While playing sports, use sunscreen that's
waterproof and sweatproof.
- Take frequent breaks. The sun's rays are strongest
between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. During those hours, take breaks to
cool off indoors or in the shade for a while before heading out
- Wear a hat with a brim and sunglasses that provide almost
100% protection against ultraviolet radiation.
- You probably know that water is a major reflector of UV
radiation - but so is 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. Ask
your doctor whether your medications might have this effect and
what you should do.
- 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, these "fake bakes" last from several days to a
You may have to try a few brands of self-tanner to find one that
looks best with your skin tone. Options include sprays, lotions,
and towelettes, and they're easy to use. For a subtle,
goof-proof glow, try one of the new 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
Ask a friend to help you apply self-tan to spots you can't
reach, like your back, for even results all over. And be sure to
wash it off of body areas that normally don't tan - like the
palms of your hands and soles of your feet - otherwise, they'll
just look dirty.
You might also check out salons that offer airbrush tanning.
Airbrush tans may look more like a natural tan with more even
results. With an airbrush tan, a salon technician will hook up a
DHA solution is to a spray compressor, and spray the tan onto you.
Your eyes, lips, and nose will be covered to protect them during
the process, which takes anywhere from about 5 seconds to 1 minute.
A few hours after the application, you'll start noticing your
new, safe tan.
With both self-tanners and airbrush tanning, you'll 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.
And with both types of sunless tanning, you'll still need to
wear sunscreen when you go outdoors to protect you from the
sun's rays. Fake tans don't generate melanin production, so
they won't protect you against sunburn. But the upside is that
you get the warm glow of a tan while you keep your skin beautiful
for years to come.
Eliot N. Mostow, MD, MPH
Date reviewed: June 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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