Fake and bake: is it worth the risk?

Spring is here, summer looms and the sun once again returned to Portland skies.

Despite the sun’s warmth, sunlight comes with risks. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight cause cell damage in the skin, accelerate the skin’s aging process and expose sunbathers to the risk of skin cancer, including the virulent and dangerous malignant melanoma.

Researchers caution that tans received from tanning beds carry the same or even greater cancer risks as those delivered by the sun. According to a women’s health web site, many salons use bulbs that emit UV type-A rays that can be two to three times more powerful than the UV-A rays emitted by the sun. This can make the typical 30-minute salon tan equal in intensity to an entire day of sun exposure.

Many who love the sun substitute tanning salons for sunbathing, assuming that a salon tan is safer than normal sunlight and that tanning gives them a healthy appearance. A few seek a gradual tan to prepare their skin for a vacation in a sunny or equatorial climate.

“I go about once a week,” said PSU student Meaghan Thompsen. “Especially in the winter. I think it looks good.”

But here’s the bottom line: if you regularly visit tanning salons or bask in the sun, you are putting yourself at a heightened risk for skin cancer.

Dr. Jan Semenza, an associate professor of public health in the School of Community Health at PSU, said the high radiation of tanning beds causes a crosslink of DNA molecules that produce a genetic mutation, setting the stage for precancerous changes. He suggests to most people that any exposure like a tanning bed or excessive sun is bad for skin.

“[Tanning beds] are bad for health and make skin age faster,” Semenza said. “The cumulative risk is not worth it.”

Short-term indoor or outdoor tanning often causes redness, itching and dry skin. Over a longer time, chronically tanned skin wrinkles and loses its elasticity.

“I burned a little once when I went,” Thompsen said. “It cleared up in a couple of days.”

The molecular changes in DNA that Semenza mentioned increase the tanner’s risk of developing skin cancer over time.

The higher the number of tanning bed exposures and the longer duration of each exposure, the greater the chances that an individual’s skin will not be able to repair the damage done each time, further increasing the risk of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“I used to tan because I thought it made my legs look good,” said Tamara Berent, a recent PSU graduate. “But I got these spots on my legs and my doctor told me to quit.”

At least one million people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer in the U.S. every year, according to the Cancer Institute web site, making it the most common type of cancer in the country.

The institute also said that women using tanning beds more than once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop malignant melanoma. Malignant melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and its incidence is rapidly rising in women under 40.

Semenza said persons with fair skin, hair and eyes are at especially high risk, but anyone is at risk from UV exposure. The cancer risk is even higher in those who have already been treated for skin cancer or have a family member who has had skin cancer. Being a smoker – which causes skin damage of its own – also accentuates UV-related damage, according to the Cancer Institute.

In those who develop sun or UV-related cancer, women are most apt to develop skin cancer on their legs, while men have a higher risk of getting it on their backs.

Recent National Cancer Institute studies suggest that tanning beds may also cause skin and eye burns, cataracts, altered immune system function and photosensitivity reactions known as sun poisoning.

Tanning salons in the U.S. operate with little Food and Drug Administration oversight. The FDA sets guidelines that include mandates on protective eyewear and tanning sunlamps. Once a salon has become operational, enforcement of tanning standards is mostly left up to individual owners.

Tanners visiting salons are given warning statements and instructed in safe use of tanning equipment, including safety goggles. Salons are required to have FDA guidelines on site, but are not required to share them with customers.

In addition to UV hazards, some sources claim that regular tanners are also exposed to radiation hazards from X-ray and electromagnetic emissions.

The ends of the fluorescent bulbs in the tanning beds emit small doses of X-rays, and shielding the last inch or two of the bulbs with lead tape wrapping can prevent this emission.

Electromagnetic radiation is also emitted by the magnetic ballast used for most tanning beds. In a tanning bed, tanners are only a few inches away from this ballast and radiation effects are unknown.

Whether tanning via tanning booth or natural sunlight, Semenza suggests that people protect themselves from the UV radiation and limit sun and tanning bed exposure

Some tanning salons have responded to cancer-based fears by switching to or adding spray-on tans, also called sunless tans. Sunless tanners step into a booth and receive a temporary tan from a series of spray jets.

The active ingredient in spray-on tans, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), is the same ingredient found in over-the-counter self-tanners, according to WebMD.com, a health web site. DHA works by staining the skin, and must be reapplied every four to five days to maintain the tanned appearance, the web site said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration consider sunless tans safe, but the tans provide no sun protection. A person with a spray-on tan must still wear sunscreen when exposed to direct sunlight.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that anyone experiencing regular UV exposure should conduct monthly skin self-examination. Some of the warning signs of skin cancer include an abnormal skin lesion, a mole that changes in color, texture or size, a crusty spot that itches or bleeds or an open sore that does not heal.

Early detection is important: the Cancer Institute says if caught early, skin cancer is almost 100 percent curable.