The myth of the ‘base tan’

skin cancer and melonoma vs sunburnIf you’ve e-mailed me recently, you already know that I’m not at my desk this week, but what you don’t know is that MediChick is in Hawaii!! In preparation for the big event, a lot of people told me that I need a ‘base tan.’ I have been so busy that laying out in the sunshine hasn’t really been an option for me, and I started to consider a tanning salon. Now, I know that there is a lovely 10% tax on tanning thanks to PPACA, but I also know it increases the chances of getting cancer, so the question is… is it worth it?

More than half of adults think a “base tan” is a healthy way to protect skin from sun damage, according to a recent survey by the American Academy of Dermatology.

This explains why so many people told me this is something I ‘have to have’ prior to a vacation.  It is common belief.  Here’s why:

Ultraviolet light stimulates the production of melanin, the dark pigmintation, which then surrounds the core of cells to protect the DNA. This melanin substance absorbs and/or scatters radiation.

Ok, so most people believe a base tan to be helpful because it increases melanin in our skin which can prevent skin damage, BUT… it all depends on what you mean by ‘skin damage.’

According to Sarah Stein, a professor of dermatology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, “we want to protect ourselves from [both] tanning and burning.   Although having a base tan might help prevent sunburns, the tan itself already indicates sun damage.”

Right, so if any tan is a sign of ‘skin damage,’ then we really aren’t talking about the same thing.  We have to separate the cancer risk from the sunburn risk in order to compare apples to apples.  If you want a base tan to prevent getting cancer, it’s likely a myth.  But in order to compare properly, the problem that has to be dealth with is that no one really wants to show all of their cards.  The American Cancer society’s research (below) doesn’t say if the people they surveyed who didn’t use tanning beds still went tanning at all.  I’d like to see a survey on people who spend an equal amount of time under sun UV vs. tanning bed UV and see who has the higher cancer risk.  I have a feeling that a tanning bed user and a sun worshiper are both going to have a high cancer risk.

Indoor tanning beds increase the melanoma risk up to 74 percent, according to a study published in a journal from the American Association for Cancer Research.

Researchers analyzed 1,167 adults with melanoma and compared their indoor tanning habits with 1,101 adults without melanoma. Not surprisingly, the more time people spent on tanning beds, the higher their risk.

See what I mean?  Are the 1,101 adults without melanoma people with any tan at all?  Yes, research shows tanning beds increase cancer risk.  Bit increased compared to what?  Compared to people who don’t ever go outside at all and never get a tan?  Well, of course it would be an increased risk in that comparison.  But I’m not so sure I believe the percentages.  I’m sure outdoor tanning increases risk, too.  A better study is needed.  

So is a base tan a myth?  It depends on why you want one and how you get it.  It appears true that having a tan protects your cells from burning, so in that respect I would think a base tan is helpful, but if you use a tanning bed to get a base tan, it will likely increase your cancer risk.  However, they still need a study on tanning in a bed vs. tanning outside before I’ll believe the statistics on it.  This lack of research makes it very difficult to answer the original quesiton here of “is it worth it?” 


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3 responses

Further confusing matters is that the risk of several common cancers goes up the further North you live. eg. breast, colon, prostate. The likelihood is that some sun exposure is healthful but too much becomes harmful. Vitamin D is synthesized in our skin with sun exposure. It is becoming increasingly recognized that vitamin D deficiency is rampant even in places like southern California. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with many common diseases such as multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancer.

While I was in Hawaii, I thought that a good study might be to compare people who tan regularly all year long to people who live in a place with enough sunshine to give them a tan all year long. It might be the closest comparison of equal amount of sun and false-sun exposure to check for cancer ratios.

Tanning outdoors certainly increases one risk of non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancer as well. Just look at the increased skin cancer incidence in farmers, construction workers, and other outdoor occupations. Ultraviolet radiation, whether from an artificial source or natural source, is now listed as a class I carcinogen along with cigarettes and plutonium.

As far as concern over sun avoidance and resulting Vit. D deficiency; the word is still not out on how significant the association is between Vit. D deficiency and increased cancer risk. Most studies show conflicting evidence. One thing is for certain however. That is there are certainly safer ways of supplementing your Vit. D intake (dietary supplements and fortified foods) than exposing yourself to a known carcinogen.

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