Spring vacation is a popular time for many of us in colder climates to travel south and soak up the sun. But if you’re using the time to kick off your summer tan in addition to relaxing, you should know that sunning comes at a price.
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We often associate a glowing complexion with good health, but skin color obtained from being in the sun can actually mean accelerated effects of aging and an increased risk for developing skin cancer.
Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages the fibers in the skin called elastin. When these fibers break down, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily in addition to taking longer to heal. Sun damage to your skin may not be show when you’re young, but will become apparent later in life.
And getting a tan ahead of summer will not save you from getting sunburned, says dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD — and it might ultimately increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
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It all adds up
Your risk of developing skin cancer — including the potentially deadly type, melanoma — is based on risk factors that include your total lifetime exposure to sun and UV rays.
While most people believe their skin is healed after a sunburn, Dr. Kassouf says that is untrue. Sun exposure and damage to the skin is permanent and cumulative, which means that the harm adds up over time.
“Those skin cells remember when they’ve been repeatedly damaged and healed,” Dr. Kassouf says. “Eventually, the skin cells no longer can repair themselves from all the damage they’ve incurred.”
There is no such thing as a healthy suntan. That’s because a suntan is the way your skin defends itself against the sun’s burning UV rays: If you have a suntan, your skin already has been damaged. Everyone, regardless of skin color, is susceptible.
“You don’t want to add to your lifetime total of sun damage,” Dr. Kassouf says. You might be all right now, but if you keep adding to the injuries, something may develop.”
It doesn’t matter in the development of cancer if a person hasn’t been in the sun for years, because past damage to the skin cells has already been done and cannot be reversed.
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Before going on vacation, many of us want a little color for our legs or our shoulders, which have been covered up for months. In that case, don’t head to a tanning bed, Dr. Kassouf says. Tanning beds will add exponentially to your lifetime exposure to harmful UV rays.
Instead, Dr. Kassouf recommends applying a spray tan as a safe alternative to the sun’s cancer-causing rays.
“Spray tans are safe, if you be sure to avoid breathing in the spray,” Dr. Kassouf says. “In addition to sprays, you also can use creams or lotions that you purchase at the drug store. That way, you can get the color you seek without the heightened risk of developing skin cancer.”
Although spray tans have come a long way, it’s important to remember that just because the skin is a darker color, it is still unprotected. So be sure to apply a proper amount of sunscreen at the right intervals to protect your skin now and long into the future.
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