Above: Image © , Vidmantas Goldbergas

With summer approaching, are you dreaming of a glorious tan?

We all know that exposure to the sun can cause our skin to darken or even burn. But what are the long-term effects of this sun exposure? And is it the same for tanning beds as it is for natural sunlight?

Effects of sun on our skin

When we're out in the sun, our skin is exposed to radiation in the form of ultraviolet (UV) light. As a “defense mechanism” against the radiation, our skin actually changes. The outermost layer of the skin (the epidermis) becomes thicker and the pigment-producing skin cells (melanocytes) produce more melanin, a pigment that absorbs UV light to protect skin from its damaging effects. The extra melanin makes your skin darker — what we know as a "tan".

Did you know? There are different types of UV light, categorized by their wavelengths. UVA, or long wave, ranges from 400-315 nm, UVB, or medium wave, ranges from 315-280 nm and UVC, or short wave, ranges from 280-100 nm. UVC light is filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere, but both UVA and UVB can penetrate our skin.

So why does your skin need to protect itself from UV light? A small amount of exposure to UV light actually has a beneficial effect, as it allows your skin to produce the activated form of vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium. But large amounts of UV light can damage your DNA and change the types and amounts of chemicals that your skin makes. This can lead to sunburns, premature aging (think age spots and leathery skin) and, most worrisome of all, skin cancer.

Did you know? Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Canada. In fact, skin cancer makes up one in every three new cases of cancer and this rate is on the rise. One in every 425 Canadians will develop skin cancer.

Are tanning beds safer?

Some people claim that using a tanning bed is less risky than exposure to natural sunlight. But this isn’t true. In fact, just last year the World Health Organization, changed their classification of tanning beds from “probably carcinogenic to humans” to "carcinogenic to humans” — the highest cancer risk category they have. This puts tanning beds in the same cancer risk category as tobacco, plutonium and radium!

Did you know? Using a tanning bed before the age of 30 increases your risk of developing skin cancer by 75 per cent!

Should tanning bed use by teens be banned?

Recognizing the risks posed by tanning beds, a bill was recently entered into the Canadian House of Commons stating that tanning beds should have “prominent labels” recommending that they should not be used by anyone younger than 18 years of age. New Brunswick did have the only law in Canada that prevented youth from using tanning beds, but that law was repealed in March, 2010. Ontario and British Columbia are both reportedly considering banning youth from using tanning beds.

Did you know? In the United States, approximately one in 10 people between the ages of 11 and 18 years of age use tanning beds. A survey by the Canadian Cancer Society found that for youth between the ages of 16 and 24 years of age, 27 per cent of females and eight per cent of males used tanning beds.

Tanning addiction?

Research suggests that tanning may even be addictive. Studies have shown that some frequent tanners met the criteria for diagnosis of addiction and that withdrawal symptoms can be experienced when they stop tanning.

So if you're thinking of a glowing tan — think again! It might be wiser to pull out your SPF 30 sunscreen.

Article first published on April 12, 2010.

Read More!!

More on Suntans and Sunburns from Teen Health

More on UV rays and Sunscreens from Consumer Science

References:

Cokkinides, V., Weinstock, M., Lazovich, D., Ward, E., & Thun, M. (2009). Indoor tanning use among adolescents in the US, 1998 to 2004. Cancer. 115(1):190-198.

Nolan, B. V., Taylor, S. L., Liguori, A., & Feldman, S. R. (2009). Tanning as an addictive behavior: a literature review. Photodermatology, photoimmunology and photomedicine. 25(1):12-9.

Hyde, P. (2009). Tanning. TeensHealth from Nemours.

Guidelines For Tanning Salon Owners, Operators And Users: A Guideline published in collaboration with the Federal Provincial Territorial Radiation Protection Committee. (2005). Health Canada

Park, A. (2009). Assessing the Risks of Tanning Beds Time.

Skin Cancer. (2009). Health Canada.

Sunlight and Skin Damage. The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library.

Dr. Beth Snow

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