There’s No Such Thing As a “Healthy Tan”

June 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Cancer, Family, Front Page, Health, Sunscreen

Sunbathing without adequate sunscreen invites premature aging and possibly even cancer. © Mikhail Tolstoy -

Think skin cancer couldn’t happen to you? Think again.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) estimates that more than a million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year in the U.S. alone. Unless you want to be among that number, protecting your skin with sunscreen is more than just a good idea. It’s a necessity.

As a person who tans easily, I didn’t think I was likely to get skin cancer. I spent much of my youth basking in the sun. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we didn’t worry about such things. But times have changed, and there’s danger outdoors.

I’m now in my 50s, and I’m paying for my sun-worshiping behavior. I have a small scar on my nose, where a dermatologist scraped off a layer of cancerous tissue. I was lucky. My skin cancer turned out to be a slow-growing, basal cell carcinoma, not melanoma — which could have killed me.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about you — and the people you love. Skin cancer can strike anyone — even teenagers — and it’s a lot safer to prevent it than to try to cure it. So, do yourself and your loved ones a favor: Limit your exposure to the sun, and find a safe and effective sunscreen you can rely on to protect you against harmful rays.

Two Kinds of Rays

There are two types of ultraviolet rays that do us harm. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays reach deep into the layers of the skin. These rays suppress the immune system, so that your body can’t fight against skin cancer. They also are responsible for much of the aging effect that you see in people who have long-term exposure to the sun. And they can even penetrate glass, so being inside isn’t necessarily going to protect you from the sun’s aging effects.

Too much sun can cause serious skin damage. © Marilyn Barbone-

Ever wondered why you don’t get sunburned through a car or house window even in direct, bright sunlight? The rays responsible for burning, Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, don’t penetrate glass. It’s the UVB rays that give you a sunburn after a day at the pool or beach (or too much time on a tanning bed).

Both UVA (aging rays) and UVB (burning rays) are potentially harmful. Here’s a sobering thought from the AAD: “The United States Department of Health & Human Services has declared ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps [emphasis added], as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).” It may look pleasing to have a tan, but is it worth the risk? The small divot in my nose has convinced me otherwise.

Tanning may look good from a purely cosmetic vantage point, but it’s hardly good for us. “There is no safe way to tan,” says the AAD:

A tan is the skin’s response to injury caused by UV exposure. Tanning occurs when ultraviolet rays penetrate the epidermis, the skin’s outer layer, causing the production of melanin as a response to the injury. Chronic exposure to ultraviolet light, both natural and artificial, results in a change in the skin’s texture, causing wrinkling and age spots. Thus, tanning to improve appearance is ultimately self-defeating.

Every time you tan, you damage your skin and this damage accumulates over time. This accumulated damage, in addition to accelerating the aging process, also increases your risk for all types of skin cancer.

That has an ominous ring in a culture that celebrates a tanned skin.

Forgo the Fake Bake

It’s more clear all the time that baking in the sun is bad for us. And the “fake bake” of tanning salons is no better, despite their popularity. According to the AAD, “Studies have demonstrated that exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning damages the DNA in the skin cells. Also excessive exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning can lead to skin aging, immune suppression, and eye damage, including cataracts and ocular melanoma.” That’s a lot of scary stuff to be wary of.


You may be surprised to learn that the AAD recommends sunscreen even when you are going to be inside the house. (Remember that UVA can penetrate window glass.) It’s not necessary to put sunscreen under clothing — just on exposed areas of skin. And when you’re outside, don’t think it’s safe to skip sunscreen on a cloudy day. Up to about 80% of those UV rays can still get through the haze. Even winter days aren’t safe; as skiers are well aware, sunlight reflecting off snow can cause a sunburn. And sand on the beach reflects a quarter of the sun’s rays.

AAD recommends that you apply sunscreen up to half an hour before going outside. Make sure you apply it liberally to all exposed areas, especially your face, ears, hands, and arms. Having had plenty of sunburns in the part of my hair, I’d recommend that spot for your consideration, as well. And if you’re bald or balding, you’ll need to be extra careful to cover your pate. In fact, think about the parts of your body that tend to burn, then cover them well with sunscreen — and plenty of it. Most of us just don’t use enough in the first place, and don’t reapply frequently enough to maintain good coverage.

The Right Amount of Protection

What SPF should you use? It helps to understand what the term SPF means. An SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, rating tells how a sunscreen protects you against UVB (burning) rays. Imagine that John Smith’s unprotected skin burns in 5 minutes on a bright, sunny day. So, if he wears SPF 10 sunscreen under the same conditions, he should be able to stay in the sun 10 times longer, or 50 minutes. If he covers the same skin with SPF 20 under the same conditions, he shouldn’t burn for 100 minutes. The SPF you use will depend on your skin type and how easily you burn. If you’re a fair redhead, you’ll want higher protection. If you’re dark skinned and tolerate the sun well, you don’t need as much.

But don’t think that an SPF of 30 is twice as strong as an SPF of 15, according to the AAD:

UVB protection does not actually increase proportionately with a designated SPF number. For example, an SPF of 30 screens 97 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF of 15 screens 93 percent of UVB rays and an SPF of 2 screens 50 percent of UVB rays. However, inadequate application of sunscreen may result in a lower SPF than the product contains.

Slather with Care

Too much sun hurts for a while — and damages forever. Photo: © Stacy Barnett -

You probably have your favorite sunscreen that you’ve grown accustomed to over the years. But many old favorites are not actually healthy  choices. A 2008 report says, “In a new investigation of 946 name-brand sunscreens, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 4 out of 5 sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns. Leading brands were the worst offenders…”

One way to know whether a particular sunscreen is safe and effective is to check the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. Type in the name of your sunscreen, and you’ll find out how it ranks in overall hazards, what the ingredients are, and how they might be harmful to you.

If you don’t find a review for a particular product, don’t jump to conclusions one way or the other. It probably just hasn’t been evaluated by the EWG team yet. What you can do is to look up the active ingredients in the Skin Deep database and find out what EWG has to say about their safety and effectiveness.

The Best Active Ingredients

According to the EWG, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are considered to be the most effective of the active ingredients commonly used in sunscreens — and they’re the safest. EWG says this of the chemicals in sunscreens:

The UV-protective properties of sunscreens are determined by their active ingredients. Only 17 chemicals have been approved by FDA as active ingredients in sunscreen. The efficacy of any sunscreen depends on the amount of each active ingredient, and the stability of the chemical mixture on its own and under UV radiation. In addition, some sunscreen makers skirt the rules by including chemicals approved in other countries but not in the U.S., and not labeling them “active ingredients.”

We reviewed the scientific literature and government assessments for common sunscreen chemicals’ efficacy and toxicity. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are known as “mineral sunscreens” or “physical blockers” since they reflect and scatter UV rays. The other actives are called “chemical blockers” because they absorb and disperse UV rays.

Studies show that unlike other common sunscreen chemicals, little to no zinc and titanium absorb through the skin, and they provide stable UVA protection relative to the other ingredients. For these reasons many zinc and titanium-based sunscreens appear at the top of our recommended product lists….

Sunshine: Handle with Care

There’s a lot more to know about the sun’s effects on your body, and it makes important reading. As the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) points out, exposure to the sun is “the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma.” So, if you can prevent a disfiguring — and potentially deadly — disease, doesn’t it just make sense to do it?

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)