The Risks of Tanning

Despite the fact that exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV) is known to cause skin cancer – the most common of all cancers in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) – many people still seek that perfect bronze glow.

That’s because a suntan has long been perceived as a sign of health and beauty. However, the opposite is true, according to Alysa Herman, M.D., a micrographic skin surgeon experienced with the Mohs technique and affiliated with South Miami Hospital,  Baptist Hospital and Doctors Hospital. She and other experts say a tan is a sign of skin damage that could lead to melanoma.

The sun isn’t the only source of a tan – or skin-damaging UV rays. Young people continue to flock to tanning beds, even though the dangers of indoor tanning have been widely reported. Tanning salons use lamps that emit dangerous UV-A and UV-B radiation, say scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that tanning devices are more dangerous than previously thought and placed them in the highest cancer risk category: “carcinogenic to humans.” In fact, many states have enacted laws limiting indoor tanning by adolescents and several states have passed laws banning it for people under age 18. In a newly released warning, the Surgeon General urges people to stop sunbathing and avoid indoor tanning beds, according to a Yahoo/Associated Press news report.

“Research continues to prove that tanning beds are not a safe alternative to sunbathing and have many undesirable side effects, including signs of premature aging and the most significant side effect – skin cancer,” Dr. Herman said.

Warning for Students

The Skin Cancer Foundation warns high school and college students that just one indoor tanning session per year increases their risk of developing potentially deadly melanoma by 20 percent. The risk of basal cell carcinoma, a nonmelanoma skin cancer, increases by 25 percent after only one or two tanning bed sessions, and soars to 73 percent after six or more sessions.

“There is no such thing as a safe tan, whether it is obtained at the beach from the sun or produced artificially from an indoor tanning bed,” said Dr. Herman. “It doesn’t matter if your skin turns red signaling a sunburn or turns golden brown demonstrating a suntan, both colors are evidence that damage is occurring.”

Melanoma Cases Spike

More than 77,000 cases of melanoma and 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, according to the ACS. And the incidence of melanoma – an aggressive form of skin cancer – has spiked a whopping 200 percent since 1973, the acting U.S. Surgeon General reports.

ACS experts say everyone is at risk for skin cancer, regardless of race or ethnicity. It is more common, however, in people with fair-to-light skin, a family history of skin cancer, a history of sunburn in early life and long-term exposure to UV rays.

Prevention and Protection 

The good news, says Dr. Herman, is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. The best way to lower your risk is to avoid long exposure to UV radiation.

“Keep your skin healthy by avoiding tanning beds, protect your skin with daily sunscreen and protective clothing and use self-tanners and bronzers to achieve the look of a tan without causing skin damage,” Dr. Herman said.

Additional steps in skin protection include checking your skin routinely and reporting any changes to your dermatologist, especially a new growth; changes in the size or color of a mole, growth or spot; or a sore that does not heal, says Dr. Herman. Ask your dermatologist how often you should have a skin cancer screening, and follow the doctor’s orders.

Detection 101

Skin cancer is very treatable when detected in the early stages. To detect signs of melanoma, know your ABCDEs:

A is for Asymmetry: Asymmetry means one half of a mole does not match the other half.

B is for Border: A mole with a ragged, blurred or irregular border or edge should be checked.

C is for Color: A mole that has shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white or red is suspicious.

D is for Diameter: A mole is suspicious if the diameter is larger than the eraser of a pencil.

E is for Evolving: A mole that is evolving – shrinking, growing larger, changing color, itching or bleeding – should be checked.




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