Fredrickson: Ditch indoor tanning, look after skin health

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

Graphic courtesy of Comprehensive Cancer Centers

I got the worst sunburn of my life within one week of moving to Colorado.

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It was sunny, but I told myself I was just going to be outside for an hour or so. No need to put on all that sunblock, right?

Wrong.

The altitude and the intensity of the sun gave me the only third-degree sunburn I’ve ever had, and it is not an experience I ever want to repeat. That burn was not only extraordinarily painful, it also increased my risk of skin cancer.

To that end, I am now very careful about wearing sunblock – a habit all students should pick up before they go through something like I did.

CSU students should get ready for summer by protecting the health of their skin to guard against skin cancer. They should do this by wearing sunscreen and avoiding indoor tanning.

One American dies from skin cancer every hour, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the EPA. The most dangerous type of skin cancer is melanoma, which accounts for only 3 percent of skin cancer cases, but 75 percent of skin cancer deaths.

Melanoma is also the second most common form of cancer for those in the college age range. It is very important students start thinking about protecting their skin health now.

Colorado’s altitude put us closer to the sun, which increases the risk, said Chase Therkelsen, the sun safety specialist at the CSU Health Network. Colorado ranks near the top in new cases of melanoma by state.

Sun exposure causes skin cancer through ultraviolet radiation. Rays of this UV radiation damage the DNA of skin cells, and when that damage reaches the genes that control skin cell growth, cancer develops.

There are several ways this UV radiation gets to our skin. The one that is most dangerous is the sunburn, but some of the UV radiation that penetrates our skin doesn’t actually do so in the form of a burn. Different types of UV rays have different effects on skin – one type aging and causing wrinkles, another type causing sunburns.

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It’s very important to wear sunscreen to protect against these rays and preserve the skin for years to come. Even on cloudy days when it may not seem like sunscreen is necessary, it’s still important to wear because the clouds can actually amplify the rays, increasing UV exposure. Even if there isn’t a sunburn to show for it, the radiation is still there. Interestingly, this effect can be seen in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, three states that are famously cloudy, having higher melanoma rates than even Colorado.

Too much sun without proper protection can cause skin cancer. Another side effect of too much sun exposure is a tan. It’s sad, but the tan everyone strives for in summer is actually not good for your health.

Indoor tanning is essentially purposeful exposure to radiation that is known to be harmful and carcinogenic for the purpose of slightly altering one’s natural skin pigment for a few months. A tan for summer months is not worth a diagnosis of skin cancer.

Tans are the body’s response to too much sun, trying to compensate for the increased radiation. In that way, they are a sign that the body has been exposed to too much sun.

“Think of a tan like a full-body scab,” Therkelsen said.

To that end, indoor tanning is one of the worst things a person can do for their skin. Tanning beds produce UV radiation that penetrates deep through the skin and causes cellular damage. Spending 20 minutes in a tanning bed is equivalent to spending three unprotected hours in the sun, Therkelsen said.

It doesn’t provide a ‘base tan’ to fight sunburn, either. Those who indoor tan are actually more likely to report getting sunburned.

Indoor tanning is essentially purposeful exposure to radiation that is known to be harmful and carcinogenic for the purpose of slightly altering one’s natural skin pigment for a few months. A tan for summer months is not worth a diagnosis of skin cancer.

Avoiding indoor tanning is a very important thing students can do to protect themselves, especially if their apartment complex offers a tanning bed as these do not have to be regulated to the same standards as tanning businesses, Therkelsen said.

Other things students can do include wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen, reapplying it appropriately, wearing sun-protective clothing like long-sleeves and hate, wearing sunglasses, and finding shade and shelter.

Some people worry about the harmful effects of certain chemicals in sunscreen like oxybenzone, but the scientific literature on this topic are mixed. If this is a worry, it’s possible to buy sunscreen that doesn’t contain this particular chemical, or use other sun blockers like zinc oxide – but the proven negative health effects of prolonged sun exposure far outweigh the possible minor negative health effects of oxybenzone.

“Using any type of sunscreen is almost always a better alternative to not using sunscreen at all,” said Therkelsen.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42