On an average day, more than 1 million Americans visit tanning salons. Many of those people are high school and college students who want to get a base tan before heading to the beach or the pool.
But whether the tan comes from a salon or from the sun, young adults are not doing their skin any favors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says chronic sun exposure eventually causes signs of premature aging—including wrinkles, sagging cheeks and skin discoloration. In other words, said AAP president Louis Z. Cooper, MD, FAAP, “All that effort put into looking ‘good’ now will probably leave high school and college students looking a lot worse in the future.”
Then there’s the cancer connection. The AAP says all that skin damage in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is a key factor in the development of skin cancer. The deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, killed about 7,800 people in the United States last year, and that number is expected to rise this year. Melanoma often strikes people who have suffered deep, intense sunburns, particularly in childhood and adolescence. And most non-melanoma skin cancers (the most common cancer in America) can be attributed to unprotected sun exposure—specifically ultraviolet or “UV-A” and “UV-B” rays. Research suggests bulbs at tanning salons emit ultraviolet rays, too.
Tanning is actually a protective skin response to sun exposure, so by the time a sun-hungry teenager has a tan, the damage is already done. People can go their whole life without a sunburn, and still suffer skin damage from simple tanning. Light-skinned people are particularly at risk, but people with dark skin are not immune from skin cancer and other problems related to sun exposure.
But it’s not too late for young people to prevent further damage to their skin.
The first and best defense against the sun is covering up. The AAP suggests wearing a hat with a 3-inch brim or a bill facing forward, sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of ultraviolet rays, and cotton clothing with a tight weave. Stay in the shade whenever possible, and avoid sun exposure during the peak intensity hours—between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Apply sunscreen before going outside. Reapply every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, and use sunscreen even on cloudy days. Sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 should be effective for most people. Be sure to apply enough—about one ounce per sitting for a young adult. High altitudes also increase the risk of tanning and burning, so take extra precautions if you are going skiing.
“Some self-tanning products contain sunscreen, but others don’t, so read the labels carefully. Tanning oils or baby oil may make skin look shiny and soft, but they provide no protection from the sun at all,” Dr. Cooper said.
American culture often equates a suntan with health and beauty. But in reality, that image contributes to skin damage and cancer. It’s time for young people to value their skin’s natural pigmentation, instead of going to extremes to change it.
(Editor’s note: copy courtesy of ARA Content.)