Tanning first became chic when Coco Chanel “caught too much sun” on a Mediterranean cruise in the1920s. Since then, marketing has helped make sun-kissed, bronze skin decidedly fashionable, and surveys show that people are both perceived as and feel more attractive when they are tan. Some scientists have even suggested that we are genetically hardwired to prefer tan skin, as it is an indicator of fitness.
But while the sun might be sharing some of its radiance, science has clearly demonstrated that it exacts a cost, as well. Importantly, studies show that even one blistering sunburn in childhood doubles the likelihood of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, in adulthood.
Research has clearly demonstrated that the majority of melanomas — 86 percent — are attributable to solar ultraviolet radiation. Other types of skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma), while less deadly, can cause serious health issues and result in surgeries and disfiguring scars. From a cosmetic standpoint, regular exposure to solar radiation will result in photo-aging of the skin. Common outcomes include sunspots, wrinkles, and saggy skin caused by loss of elastin fibers.
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Making sun safety a priority when children are young will provide them with the best chance of avoiding skin cancer in the future. To ensure cooperation, parents can incorporate sun safety and skin protection in their children’s activities. For example, parents should encourage children to wear wide-brimmed hats, waterproof sunscreen of at least SPF 30 with UVA/UVB broad-spectrum protection, and broad-spectrum sunglasses when playing outdoors. Parents should also identify shade in outdoor play areas, either under a tree, an umbrella, or a pop-up tent, and highly encourage children to play in these selected areas.
The effect of sun exposure varies with each person’s natural skin color. From a physiological perspective, tanning is simply the process of the skin producing more melanin (the pigment that gives skin and hair its color) in order to protect cellular DNA from UV-induced damage. Caucasians and those of lighter skin types — blond or red hair and light eyes, especially — are more likely to burn than tan under solar radiation, while those of darker skin type are more likely to tan without risk of burn.
Practicing sun smart habits is relevant for those of intermediate pigmentation, as well. Hispanics and Asians share epidemiological features with both dark-skinned people and Caucasians, and therefore should take steps to limit UV damage. As the ozone layer continues to be depleted, many scientists expect the incidence and severity of sunburns, and ultimately skin cancer, to increase.
So how does one acquire the sun-kissed glow without the dangers? Do you have a teenager basking out on the front lawn in preparation for a school dance? Luckily, the formulas used in spray tans have continuously improved. For parents wary of the chemicals involved in the process, several all-natural products are available. Self-tanners have also benefited from their increased popularity. Self-tanners work by dyeing the dead cells on the surface of the skin; for best results, teenagers and others should exfoliate before applying an even layer of the lotion, cream, or spray.
And for those of us who need to get out in the sun — this is South Florida, after all — there are steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of permanent damage. Trade in the tanning oil for sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, stay hydrated, and avoid the most direct sun rays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Also, check to ensure your sunscreen has broad-spectrum coverage. It is best to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outdoors. Reapply every two hours and immediately after swimming or sweating.
By serving as role models and personally practicing sun protection (wearing hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen), parents can instill an understanding of sun-safe practices in their children.
The next time you and your family hit the beach or are making preparations for vacation, remember that sun-safe practices are not intended to keep you from enjoying the great outdoors — just do it smartly! Grab a bottle of self-tanner for a natural glow and apply sunscreen often to keep skin healthy and youthful for years to come.
Keyvan Nouri, M.D., is chief of dermatology services at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and director of Mohs, dermatologic and laser surgery at the University of Miami Health System; Jessica Cervantes is a medical student and dermatology research fellow; and John Tsatalis is an undergraduate working in dermatology research. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.