Is Tan Healthy?

James Goydos, MDBy James S. Goydos, MD

The perception in the ‘80s and ‘90s used to be that having a tan made one “look healthy.”  Fast forward ten or 20 years, and there is a shifting attitude toward how we view the common culprit of this bronzed look…the sun.

It is especially critical to be mindful of sun exposure, not only in the summer, but all-year round.  Lifetime exposure to two types of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB) from the sun can lead to less serious forms of skin cancer such as basal cell and squamous cell cancers, as well as other conditions. 

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, with melanoma (the most serious kind) accounting for only five percent of these cases. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 77,000 cases of melanoma -- the deadliest of skin cancers -- were reported last year (2013) in the United States with 9,400 deaths from the disease. And while there is no definitive link between lifetime exposure to UV rays and melanoma risk, study has shown that a few serious burns in one’s lifetime may lead to melanoma down the road. 

So, how can we protect ourselves and still enjoy the outdoors?  Take advantage of umbrella and cabana rentals at the beach, and wear a hat while gardening or at the baseball game. Clip a mini sun screen bottle on to your bathing suit or shorts, and relax in shaded areas at ball fields, parks, and community pools. While society is making it easier for us to avoid the sun’s harmful rays, let’s not forget the basics:

  • Limit your time in the sun during peak UV exposure hours (between 10:00am and 2:00pm)
     
  • Keep sunglasses handy, as well as a wide-brimmed hat when prolonged sun exposure in unavoidable.
     
  • Wear tightly woven fabrics to protect against UV rays.
     
  • Use sunscreen with at least a solar protection factor (SPF) of 15 and apply regularly.

You can have fun in the sun…but be “sun smart.” A pair of shades and the cap of your favorite sports team will help get you started.  It only takes a minute and could mean a lifetime of good health for your skin.

James S. Goydos, MD, is the director of the Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and a professor of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.