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Why suntanning is still a bad idea

Sun protection is essential whenever you are outdoors. Self-tanning products offer a safe alternative for attaining that sun-kissed look.

suntanning sunless tanning
Image: Nadezhda1906/Thinkstock

Gone are the days when we were urged to soak up the rays to get a healthy glow and absorb the “sunshine vitamin.” Decades of medical research have determined that sun exposure causes skin cancer and that a nutritious diet and supplementation are reliable ways to obtain the vitamin D essential for good health. In other words, there is no good reason to expose your skin to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

There is no such thing as a healthy suntan. “A tan is a response to DNA damage,” says Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, a dermatologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Such damage is instrumental in the development of skin cancer, and it also accelerates skin aging. “Some women may tan well for many years, but eventually the skin quality will change, become leathery, develop lentigenes [“age spots”], and then coarse wrinkling,” Dr. Gilchrest says. If you’re a lifelong tanner, compare the skin on the underside of your upper arm or buttocks to a tanned area, and you’ll see evidence of the changes wrought by UV radiation.

The best advice is still to do everything you can to protect your skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure and reduce your risk of skin cancer. The following tips may help.

Apply sunscreen. Look for a label that specifies a sunscreen with broad-spectrum coverage, SPF of at least 30, and water resistance. Fifteen minutes before you go outside, fill your palm with sunscreen and rub it into all your exposed skin, including your neck, ears, and tops of your feet. Reapply approximately every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.

Wear protective clothing. The less skin you expose, the better. When going in the sun, a long-sleeved top, a long skirt or pants, and a broad-brimmed hat are ideal. If this sounds stifling, consider lightweight fabrics with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating of at least 25.

Avoid peak sun hours. The sun’s rays are strongest and most direct between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. A good rule of thumb: if your shadow is shorter than you are, head for the shade.

Be cautious at the beach and pool. Water and sand reflect the sun, adding to the dose of UV radiation you receive. Wear a protective cover-up over your swimsuit and be sure to reapply sunscreen before you enter the water.

Another option: Sunless tanning

“So-called self-tanners can give a natural tanned look without damaging the skin. I recommend them to anyone determined to look tanned, no matter how easily she tans,” Dr. Gilchrest says.

Self-tanning creams and sprays contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a compound that is FDA-approved for use in cosmetics. DHA reacts with proteins in the top layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, to produce a golden color. Because the stratum corneum is continually shed, the tan may last only a few days and will fade faster if you scrub your skin or use exfoliants. It can take some practice to apply self-tanners evenly, so you may want to test one first on a part of your body you plan to keep under cover. And wear plastic gloves to avoid developing orange palms or fingertips—two areas where the stratum corneum is especially thick and absorbs more DHA.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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