The Myths of Tanning

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The Myths of Tanning

Dr. Adams busts a few popular tanning and sun myths that can help save your skin.

I am part dermatologist, part broken record. “Wear your sunscreen” is a mantra I repeat endlessly throughout the day. I even once remember saying it Spanish in a dream when I was learning the language. Most people just nod their head politely and go right outside into the sun without a second thought to my words of warning. But I do have patients give me their rebuttals from time to time. I want to share with you some of my favorites. Have these words crossed your lips?

“Getting a base tan before a vacation protects your skin.”

It depends on what you mean by “protect”. Having a base tan may keep you from burning as quickly as you normally would; but does not protect you from the carcinogenic and wrinkle-inducing effects on sunlight. Any time your skin is tan, you have induced damage to your cell’s DNA. If you are concerned about blinding people with pasty white skin at the beach, it makes more sense to use a sunless tanner before you go rather than a tanning booth. Of course when you get to the beach aggressive and liberal application of sunscreen is the recommendation. Tan skin equals DNA damage.

“Sunless tanner is as safe as sunscreen.”

Sunless tanners, spray tans, or “bronzers” contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone. They afford you the SPF of approximately 2-3. Several years ago these agents turned skin a sickly shade of orange. Newer products are more cosmetically elegant and don’t give you the unfashionable jaundiced look. Remember, they do not give you adequate protection from the sun regardless of how dark you get.

“Tanning is the best way to boost my vitamin D levels.”

Tanning will elevate your measurable levels of vitamin D without a doubt. I fail to see the logic in soaking your body in cancer-inducing ultraviolet radiation to get a vitamin you can take orally. All the hype around vitamin D reminds of the excitement enjoyed by vitamin E back in the 1990’s. E was promised to cure everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer to depression; coincidently many of the same things vitamin D advocates claim. Although I do not know what the medical jury will ultimately decide on vitamin D, vitamin E turned out to be disappointing. Don’t worry though, there are still plenty of letters in the alphabet to go.

“It is a cloudy day so I don’t need sunscreen.”

Who has not been to the beach and gotten burnt on a cloudy day? The spectrum of radiation emitted by the sun is vast and visible light is only a tiny fraction of it. The ultraviolet rays have nothing to do with visible light, they are invisible. In fact when it is cloudy only the infrared, heat-generating rays are blocked; ultraviolet radiation goes right through clouds.

“I am addicted to tanning”

This may be true. Researchers have found that the chemical proopiomelanocortin is released from the pituitary in response to tanning. Although a horrible mouthful to pronounce, it contains several key constituents in its name. “Opio” is short for opioid, as in opium. It is our body’s endogenous feel good, groovy molecule and pain killer. The “melano” refers to melanin which our skin cells make in response to this hormone. So it is not surprising that some people get a mild high from tanning, as the brain simultaneously releases the two chemicals at once in response to enough ultraviolet light. There are even studies documenting self-described tanning addicts going through withdraw symptoms when deprived of their tanning.

“Sunscreens cause cancer”

This is an opinion I do not share. The evidence for this has not surfaced in many well-designed clinical studies. What does surface however are websites devoted to this idea of frightening you.  If this is a cause of real concern for you, I recommend Badger or EltaMD sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group maintains a list of sunscreens online they deem safe and this is a helpful resource. Recent studies do show blood levels of some synthetic sunscreens that we previously believed would be confined to the skin. The significance is unknown and it is hard to assign a level of risk based off this limited information. But if this worries you, stick to natural elements like zinc and titanium based sunscreens. 

 There is ultimately little I can do to change people’s beliefs and behavior. Hopefully by dispelling a few of these myths it will cause someone out there to practice a little extra sun safety.