We all love a suntan. It makes you look healthy and sexy. Or so you think. The truth is that to your skin, there’s no difference between a healthy-looking suntan and a severe sunburn.
You read right. Sunburn. BS, you say? Think again. The ultraviolet rays of the sun that make that nice, dark tan are hard at work trying to create genetic mutations in your skin cells, which lead to melanoma, or skin cancer.
The bad news is that this damage is cumulative and irreversible. If you're lucky, years from now, your soft, young skin will age prematurely, making you look like tough leather or a raisin. If you’re lucky.
A suntan, like a sunburn, results from exposure to the ultraviolet radiation found in sunlight. Both sunburn and suntan are caused when ultraviolet rays damage your DNA, which can be the first step on the pathway to cancer. Each time you lay out on a lounge or on the beach worshiping the sun, you are adding more and more damage to your skin’s DNA, eventually triggering the formation of basal cell or other forms of skin cancer. And if that happens, the cancer must be removed with invasive surgery, leaving a terrible scar on the affected area.
But you’re dark-skinned, you say. That only happens to light-skinned albinos like me. Sadly, no. Even dark-skinned people can be impacted by excessive exposure to the sun, as this article from the BBC clearly reports. Yes, while light skinned people like me are at much higher risk, the truth is that all of us are at risk. And contrary to what you have been told, having a tan won’t give you more protection.
Don’t get me wrong. Having some sun is good for your health. We need Vitamin D. It’s crucial for bone and immune system health. Vitamin D is activated in your body when you expose your skin to sunlight. Recent medical studies suggest that just a half hour or more of exposure to sunlight will cause an enormous amount of the vitamin to circulate in your bloodstream. But too much sunlight can be deadly.
When we’re younger, we don’t pause to think about what damage we could be doing to our skin by laying out in the sun. We want to be attractive, so naturally, we listen to all the hype about looking great and worship the sun god. But because the damage we cause from laying in the sun is cumulative, that’s why cancers tend to occur later in life, and why overexposure to UV radiation beginning early in our lives can have such a dramatic impact on our chances of developing skin cancer.
Need proof? Medical studies like this one from the National Institutes of Health, or this one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, or this one on the dangers of tanning beds from the Canadian Cancer Society go into real detail. The bottom line is this: too much sun, either from cumulative daily exposure, or intermittent, intense exposure (like laying out around the pool all afternoon) put you at extreme risk of permanently damaging your skin, causing skin cancer, even life-threatening versions.
Some not so fun facts:
I know. I sound like Debbie Downer. But I have surgical scars on my forehead and arm because I didn’t heed the warnings. And I’m lucky. Given that I’m pretty sure that I’m the product of a torrid affair between my mom and our albino milkman, I have to be super careful. But even if you have walnut-colored skin, please take caution.
It doesn’t mean you have to live in the basement. But respect the power of the sun’s UV rays. Put on sunscreen before you go outside. Wear a hat. And have fun.
Guest blogger Brian Teeter is an author and publisher of the Healthy Trekking travel guidebooks. You can learn more at www.healthytrekking.com.
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