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The Truth About Tanning

Debunking 10 Myths

Don’t let fashion fool you into raising your risk for early wrinkles and skin cancer. A sun-kissed look indicates skin damage – not health.

It’s sunbathing season! Time to find your bathing suit and hit the beach to get that perfect tan, right?

Not so fast.

While many find the sun-kissed look appealing this time of year, such California dreaming can become a nightmare for your skin and put your overall health at risk.

Decoding Sun Damage

Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, damages skin cell DNA. In an effort to repair the damaged DNA, your body makes more pigmentation to prevent further harm. So that tan glow you love so much actually indicates skin damage.

DNA damage from UV radiation is cumulative over your lifetime, meaning that injury caused to your skin from your earliest years – sunburns, tanning, and tanning beds – is compounded over time. At some point, your immune system’s ability to successfully obliterate these abnormal cells becomes overwhelmed, and, poof! You’ve got skin cancer –whether it be melanoma, squamous cell, or basal cell carcinoma. 

The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that tanning leads to skin cancer more often than smoking leads to lung cancer. So before you lay out your beach towel or schedule your next appointment at the tanning salon, get the facts first. Here’s the scoop on 10 common myths.

Myth No. 1: Tanning is only a problem if you do it often.

Whether your tan comes from a tanning bed or the sun’s rays, UV radiation can harm your skin cells. Even if you don’t burn, tanning over and over again repeatedly damages your skin, increasing your risk of skin cancer. Sun damage accumulates over time and even speeds up the skin aging process.

Myth No. 2: Tanning is a great way to clear up my acne.

“UV radiation may help slightly, but it’s not recommended due to the possibility of developing cancer,” says Dr. John Chung, dermatologist with Skin Cancer & Cosmetic Dermatology Center.

Any benefits come at a high risk, says Dr. Karin Covi, dermatologist with the offices of Dr. C Rodney Susong. “I often see patients who underwent sunlamp treatments for acne in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “Many of them now have more than 20 skin cancer sites on their faces.” A better option? Opt for a non-carcinogenic acne treatment like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

Myth No. 3: If it’s cloudy outside, sunscreen isn’t necessary.

woman tanning beside pool
Did you know?

Even one indoor tanning session can increase your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 67% and basal cell carcinoma by 29%.

Don’t let those clouds fool you. UV rays can still cause sunburn even in obstructed sunlight. To help prevent overexposure, use a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply it half an hour before going outside and reapply every few hours.

Myth No. 4: Tanning doesn’t cause the deadliest kind of skin cancer.

Excessive ultraviolet radiation increases your risk for developing all kinds of skin cancer – including melanoma, the most serious type. Although only about 1% of people with skin cancer develop melanoma, melanoma causes the most skin cancer fatalities.

Myth No. 5: A fake tan can protect you from the sun.

Sunless tans (from lotions, sprays, or wipes) offer you the bronze color without risking your skin. However, they do not provide any sun protection. “Fake tans have no protective properties,” says Dr. John Chung. Don’t believe it? Read the label!

smiling woman with sun hat, sun dress, and sunglasses on
Did you know?

Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Defining a Carcinogen

A carcinogen is any agent that can cause cancer. The United States Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer have declared ultraviolet radiation to be a known carcinogen.

Myth No. 6: I already have a tan, so that will protect my skin.

People with tans can still get sunburned. Plus, tanning does not prevent skin damage, it indicates it. The darker you are, the more damage you’ve done. Even if you’re not genetically predisposed to skin cancer, you will suffer the effects of premature skin aging. “For example, you’ll see freckles, moles, ‘liver spots,’ and ‘chicken skin’ on your neck and sun-exposed skin,” says Dr. Covi.

Myth No. 7: People with dark skin tones don’t have to worry about skin cancer.

“All skin types and ethnicities are at risk for skin cancer, including melanoma,” says Dr. Chung. Acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) accounts for half of all melanomas in darker skin tones and often grows on hard-to-see areas. Even reggae icon Bob Marley died when the melanoma on his foot spread and became terminal. Don’t let the color of your skin give you a false sense of security.

Myth No. 8: Skin cancer only affects older adults.

While your risk for skin cancer increases the older you get, melanoma is one of the most diagnosed cancers among young adults. “Skin cancer and melanoma affect people of all ages,” says Dr. Chung. “Melanoma can even occur in infants.” People who use a tanning bed before turning 35 raise their risk of developing melanoma between 59% and 75%.

Myth No. 9: Indoor tanning is safer than outdoor tanning.

Instead of spending hours in the sun for a darker skin tone, some people turn to tanning salons for similar results in less time. Tanning beds may seem more convenient, but they also emit intense ultraviolet radiation. “The amount of radiation produced during indoor tanning is similar to that of the sun, and in some cases might be stronger,” says Dr. Covi.

Myth No. 10: Tanning is a great source of vitamin D.

While vitamin D may lower your risk for breast, colon, and prostate cancer, you don’t have to put your skin in jeopardy to get it. “Sure, sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, but it is also carcinogenic. There are non-carcinogenic ways of acquiring vitamin D – namely a healthy diet combined with oral supplements,” says Dr. Covi. “Have your primary care physician check your levels at your next visit and guide you on how much to supplement.

Picture of Dr. Karin Covi

Dr. Karin Covi

Dermatologist, Susong Dermatology

Picture of Dr. John Chung

Dr. John Chung

Dermatologist, Skin Cancer & Cosmetic Dermatology Center

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