Top Myths About Tanning & Sun Protection

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How sun smart are you? Here, a look at some of the most common myths about tanning and sun protection.

Skin cancer rates have increased in the past two decades, especially for those over 50, says the Canadian Cancer Society.

It has been long known that sun protection is the best way to prevent against melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. But is any amount of tanning safe? How much protection are you really getting from your sunscreen? Are indoor tanning beds a safe alternative?

Here, a look at some of the most common myths about tanning and sun protection, according to a survey by the American Academy of Dermatology.

Myth: Some types of ultraviolet (UV) rays are safe for your skin.

Fact: Both types of the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB) are actually harmful. UVA rays, which can pass through window glass, penetrates the thickest layer of the skin and can suppress the immune system — which in turn can interfere with a person’s ability to protect against the development and spread of skin cancer. UVB rays, which are blocked by window glass, are the primary cause of sunburn.

“Quite simply, all forms of UV exposure, whether from natural sunlight or artificial light sources found in tanning beds, are unsafe and are the No. 1 preventable risk factor for skin cancer,” says Dr. Zoe D. Draelos, a dermatologist and consulting professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.

Myth: Getting a base tan is a healthy way to protect skin from sun damage.

Fact: We may think ‘sun-kissed’ skin looks healthy or attractive, but in actuality it’s a sign that the skin has been damaged from UV radiation. Every time a person tans, the skin becomes more damaged — and over time this can lead to an acceleration of the aging process and an increased risk for skin cancer.

“A base does very little to protect your skin, and since tanning damages the skin, getting a base tan could do more harm than good.” says Draelos. “The only way to prevent sunburn is to protect your skin through using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and seeking shade.”

Myth: A smarter option is to tan indoors using a tanning bed.

Fact: The International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US Department of Health has declared UV radiation from the sun and artificial light sources — including tanning beds and sun lamps — as a known carcinogen. Indoor tanning equipment emits UVA and UVB radiation, and the amount of the radiation produced during indoor tanning is similar to the sun, and in some cases it might be even stronger, researchers say. Studies have also shown that indoor tanning can be addictive and increases risk for cancer.

“Despite claims by those in the tanning industry that UVA rays used in indoor tanning are safer because they do not cause sunburn, scientific evidence proves that this claim is untrue,” Draelos says.

“UVA rays cause deeper skin damage and are linked to melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. In fact, studies show that melanoma is increasing faster in females 15-29 years old than males in the same age group. And in females 15-29, the torso is the most common location for developing melanoma, which we suspect is due to high-risk tanning behaviors — including indoor tanning.”

(See Sunbeds and skin cancer.)

Myth: A sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 provides twice the amount of the protection as an SPF 15.

Fact: Contrary to popular belief, UVB protection does not actually increase proportionately with a designated SPF number. For example, an SPF of 30 screens 97 per cent of UVB rays, whereas an SPF of 15 protects against 93 per cent of UVB rays. A sunscreen of SPF of 2 protects against 50 per cent of UVB rays.

Keep in mind, however, that inadequate application of sunscreen may result in a lower SPF than the product contains.

“Regardless of the SPF you use, wearing sunscreen should not provide a false sense of security about protection from UVB exposure,” Draelos says. “No sunscreen can provide 100 percent UVB protection, but using a higher SPF provides greater UVB protection than a lower SPF. It’s important to remember sunscreen must be reapplied regularly and be part of an overall sun-protection plan that includes hats, sunglasses, protective clothing and seeking shade.”

(See Find the sunscreen that’s right for you.)

NEXT: Early detection of skin cancer essential

Early detection essential

The survey also found that while skin cancer is the only cancer that can be seen on the surface of the skin, many people do not see a health care provider for a skin cancer screening, or take the time to examine their skin for any changes or warning signs of cancer. ( Find out what signs you need to look out for.)

“Like many cancers, skin cancer is highly treatable if caught early before it spreads. In fact, studies show that the five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 99 per cent — making early detection essential,” says Draelos.

The American Academy of Dermatology’s “Suntelligence: How Sun Smart is Your City?” online survey polled more than 7,000 adults in the United States to access their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward tanning, sun protection and skin cancer detection.

How common is skin cancer?

An estimated 191,300 new cases of cancer and 76,600 deaths from cancer are expected to occur in Canada this year, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. It is the most common cancer in this country. The society expects over 80,000 skin cancer cases in Canada this year, nearly the same number of cases of the top four cancers combined, including lung, breast, prostate and colorectal.


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