Emory Report

April 26, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 29


When it comes to tanning beds, products, just say no

Recently I was astonished to read an article titled "Tanning Experts Offer Safety Tips" in a local weekly newspaper. These so-called experts--who worked at a tanning salon--stressed the importance of "building up a tan instead of doing it all at once" and said people "should not mix indoor and outdoor tanning."

They produced pamphlets on tanning procedures, which then were distributed to their high school audience. Unfortunately, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there is no such thing as a "safe tan." The ACS has stated that tanning from artificial sources such as sunlamps and tanning beds damage the skin-they don't help or protect you.

There is a misconception that tanning beds are safer than tanning under the sun. There are two types of UV radiation from the sun, ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). UVB causes most sunburns. UVA doesn't readily burn the skin, but it penetrates the skin more deeply and causes long-term damage. Many tanning bed salons today tout beds using "safer" UVA radiation, but UVA radiation is responsible for loss of skin elasticity, damage to blood vessels and aging of the skin.

The ACS warns that using products that give tans without UV radiation may also be risky. Carotenoid is a color additive that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food coloring, not as a tanning agent. "Tanning" pills containing a high level of carotenoid may be harmful. Another main ingredient in tanning pills, canthaxanthin, can deposit in the eyes as crystals and cause injury and impaired vision.

"Tanning accelerator" drugs are ineffective and also may be dangerous, according to the ACS. The FDA considers them unapproved new drugs that have not been proven safe and effective. Bronzers, made for cosmetic and external use, are made from color additives approved by the FDA. They stain the skin for color and can be washed off with soap and water.

Exposure to some sunlight is known to be beneficial. Sunlight helps to synthesize vitamin D in the body, and it helps to elevate one's feeling of well-being. Most of the more than 1 million cases of skin cancer diagnosed annually in the United States are caused by too much sunlight. Most non-melanoma skin cancers are curable, but melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and accounted for about 42,000 cases in 1998. Exposure to too much sunlight also increases the risk of cataracts.

Before you go outdoors this summer, the ACS advises the following:

  • Check the UV Index, which ranges from 0 to 10+. The index indicates the amount of UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface during an hour around noon. The higher the number, the greater the exposure to UV radiation.
  • While in the sun wear a hat, protective clothing and plenty of sunscreen.
  • Plan your activities to minimize outdoor exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest.
  • Watch sun exposure when using some medications, such as antibiotics, that can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun.
  • Give children extra protection from the sun; make sure they wear a hat, protective clothing and sunscreen.
  • Always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more.
  • For best results apply sunscreen about 20 minutes before going outside to allow time for it to bond to your skin.
  • Reapply sunscreen after swimming, perspiring heavily or drying your skin with a towel.

When enjoying the sunshine, enjoy it safely. The final word on tanning beds--just don't do it.

Reference: American Cancer Society. Skin Cancer Prevention [online at <http://www. cancer.org>].

Susan Butler is an assistant professor of behavioral sciences and health education at the Rollins School of Public Health.

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