Taking care of your skin is serious business.]
Tanning is big business. There are 14,000 indoor tanning outfits in the United States, and about 10% of Americans visit one every year. (One study of big cities found that indoor tanning salons outnumber Starbucks and McDonald’s.) The annual economic impact of the tanning industry is an estimated $5 billion.
Unsurprisingly, the tanning industry produces a whole lot of marketing — through websites, social media, emails, and even text messages. And it’s gotten in hot waterwith the federal government for making false and deceptive claims.
“The tanning salons promote these myths about the safety of tanning,” Carolyn Heckman of Fox Chase Cancer Center told BuzzFeed News. “They use a lot of strategies similar to the tobacco industry, in terms of trying to attract young people and get them hooked.”
Here are the biggest myths to watch out for.
1. MYTH: A base tan is “nature’s sunscreen.”
Sunlight is a form of radiation. And when that radiation hits your skin, it can mutate the DNA in your skin cells. Period.
Sun damages your cells no matter what your skin color, though dark-skinned people get less damage than the light-skinned. That’s because dark skin has more of a pigment called melanin, which helps slow DNA damage.
When light-skinned people get a tan, it’s because their skin has made more melanin in response to being hit by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The photo above, taken with a camera that filters out all light except for UV, shows clusters of melanin (aka freckles) absorbing those rays.
“A suntan is a sign that skin has already been damaged,” as a new JAMA article put it. “And tanned skin can continue to be damaged when exposed to UV rays.”
Many websites and ads twist that idea, claiming that a suntan is “nature’s sunscreen” — as if it blocks further damage.
“It makes no sense,” Lindsey Bordone, a dermatologist at Columbia University, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s like saying you’re protecting yourself from lung cancer by putting a filter on a cigarette.”
2. MYTH: Tanning doesn’t cause the deadly kind of skin cancer.
Wrong. UV radiation is a known carcinogen. A history of excessive sun exposure is a risk factor for several common skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, as well as melanoma, which kills about 10,000 Americans each year.
Skin type and other genetic factors also play a role in cancer risk. But UV exposurecauses up to 90% of all cases of melanoma, according to the surgeon general.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with an annual cost of $8 billion. It’s also on the rise, which many experts attribute to our cultural obsession with tanning.
3. MYTH: Tanning is safe for kids and teens.
The earlier you start tanning, the higher your lifetime risk of skin cancer.
Donna Regen, a retired copy editor from Allen, Texas, knows these stats all too well. Her daughter, Jaime, started going to the tanning salon around age 14. When Donna found out, she went into the salon with Jaime to ask if it was safe for someone so young. “I was told, ‘Oh, absolutely, because of her fair skin she needs to go to tanning beds to get a base tan’,” Regen told BuzzFeed News.
Jaime kept going tanning, usually every day. When she was 20, she was diagnosed with melanoma, and when she was 29, it killed her.
“We don’t have any family history of it,” said Regen, who is now an anti-tanning activist. The doctors told her that the tanning beds had likely spurred the cancer.
4. MYTH: Most skin cancers are no big deal.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are fairly common, and they usually don’t lead to death. But they can cause ugly red and brown lesions that typically need to be surgically removed.
Bordone, the Columbia University dermatologist, cited one patient who tans year-round. “Every month we’re carving out something on his body or face,” she said. “He looks deformed now.”
5. MYTH: Only UVB rays are bad for you, and UVA rays are no biggie.
The sun’s radiation hits our skin in two kinds of rays: UVA and UVB.
UVB rays have shorter wavelengths, which means they have more energy and are more damaging to the top layers of skin cells. Scientists used to think that only UVB rays increased the risk of cancer and premature aging. But more recent research shows that UVA rays are also harmful.
6. MYTH: You don’t have to worry if you use newer models of tanning beds.
Sorry, but no. This review of 31 studies of tanning bed use compared melanoma risk before and after 2000 — and found no difference.
What’s more, last year the FDA decided that tanning beds should be recategorizedas “class II” medical devices, which have moderate health risks, instead of low-risk “class I” that they were before.
“Now they essentially have to have a black box warning,” Darren Mays, a cancer prevention expert at Georgetown University Medical Center, told BuzzFeed News. The warning must say that tanning lamps shouldn’t be used by people under 18 years old, and that people with repeat exposure should be evaluated for cancer.
7. MYTH: If you don’t burn you won’t be at risk of cancer.
A sunburn is a visible sign of your skin’s inflammatory response to UV damage. But the sun’s rays can damage your skin regardless of whether you burn.
A history of sunburns is a well-known risk factor for cancer, but it’s not required. In May, a study of indoor tanners found that there is a link between tanning and melanoma even among people who said they had never had a sunburn.
8. MYTH: Tanning is a fantastic source of vitamin D.
Yes, it’s true that your body produces vitamin D in response to sun exposure. (Specifically, vitamin D production is triggered by UVB rays — which aren’t used in most tanning beds!) And yes, getting enough vitamin D is important for building strong bones and a robust immune system.
But here’s the thing: Tanning isn’t necessarily a great source of vitamin D. “The amount of outdoor sun exposure needed for meaningful vitamin D production depends on many factors, including time of day, time of year, latitude, altitude, weather conditions, a person’s skin type, amount of skin exposed to the sun” and other factors, the surgeon general says.
Plus, there are lots of other ways to get your vitamin D — without the skin cancer risk. Fatty fish, egg yolks, and calf liver are all high in vitamin D, as are fortified milk, yogurt, juices. If you’re really concerned about low vitamin D, you can also try a dietary supplement.
9. MYTH: Tanning decreases your risk of cancer because of vitamin D.
Uhh, no. See above.
10. MYTH: Tanning will help you lose weight.
This is one of the strangest tanning myths out there. The idea is that light rays stimulate your thyroid hormone, somehow causing weight loss.
“I have never in my life heard this,” said Bordone, the Columbia dermatologist. “It’d be much smarter to just go walking.”
11. MYTH: Sunscreen is toxic.
The ingredients of most sunscreens have been on the market for decades, and there’s little evidence that they are unsafe.
If you hear about “toxic” or “poisonous” sunscreen, it’s probably concerning products that contain oxybenzone, a chemical that protects your skin by absorbing UV rays. There are some studies (though far from conclusive) suggesting that oxybenzone affects your hormones.
If you’re worried about these potential risks, however small, Bordone suggests choosing sunscreens that instead contain metals — usually titanium dioxide or zinc oxide — which are often found in products meant for babies. Rather than being absorbed by your skin, these sunscreens sit on top of your skin and reflect the sun’s rays.
12. MYTH: Tanning doesn’t accelerate wrinkles.
The best refutation of this myth comes from a medical case study published in 2012.
A 69-year-old man, pictured above, was a delivery truck driver for 28 years. Because UVA rays can pass through windows, the left side of his face became far more wrinkled than the right side.
“If I could offer you only one tip for the future…”