Friday, February 18, 2011

Getting a Tan and Cancer Risks

With all the snow we are getting this year, if you can't fly to Florida or Hawaii, tanning beds sound like a good alternative.  Think again. 

For years, scientists have described tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation as "probable carcinogens."  That was prior to July 2009.  The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced July 2009 that it moved UV tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category -- "carcinogenic to humans."  A new analysis of about 20 studies concludes the risk of melanoma skin cancer jumps by 75% when people start using tanning beds before age 30.

So what about going back to natural sun tanning? Research has also shown that many of us have vitamin D deficiency from insufficient UVB exposure or NOT going out and exposing our skin to the sun. Natural sunlight creates active vitamin D. Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption so it is good for bone health. Vitamin D also helps ensure proper function of the heart, nervous system, clotting process, and immune system. Thousands of cancer deaths each year are linked to vitamin D deficiency. So what are we to do to get our daily dose of vitamin D and not increase our risk of cancer by sun exposure? (Roizen and Oz, 2007, pp. 254-256) Here are some options:

1. Don't wear sunscreen at all when in the sun. Life's to short for all this worry.

2. Apply sunscreen when going in the sun and take a vitamin D supplement. Health is more important than a tan.

3. Go out in the sun for 15 to 20 minutes per day 4 to 5 days per week to get enough vitamin D. If you stay out longer apply sunscreen.

Option 1 is not a good option if you are out in the sun for many hours. You may get enough vitamin D but you are increasing your risk of skin cancer and premature wrinkling.

Option 2 is better. Just make sure you use an organic sunscreen. The chemicals in the non-organic brands can be toxic and irritating to sensitive skin.

Option 3 is best. Get 15 to 20 minutes of sun 4 0r 5 days per week will supply enough vitamin D for the week. Use organic sunscreen if you are going to stay out in the sun for an extended period or you are going swimming. Plenty of vitamin D will be absorbed if you are swimming because the best of sunscreens do not stay on for long periods of time even if you reapply every hour. And let's be realistic, when we are having fun, we are not always diligent about reapplying.

Unfortunately if you live where it gets cold and snowy like I do then what do you do in the winter?  What about self-tanning products? These products are loaded with chemicals and can irritate skin. I would not use them on a regular basis. See the list at the link in the list of resources below if you want to try them some of the better products. In the summer, some of the ingredients in these products may actually increase your risk of sun burn; therefore, you should apply sunscreen if going in the sun for an extended period of time.

Spray tans at salons are also an option but can be costly at $20 - $30 on average per application and last 7-10 days. These are best saved for special events and can be loaded with chemicals, too.

What do I do? I try to get out in the sun every day for 15 to 20 minutes doing my gardening and yard work with no sunscreen.  I am not obsessed about getting a tan, just some color. I wear an organic sunscreen when I go swimming.  On days that I do not get out in the sun, I take a vitamin D supplement.   In the winter, I just try to out in the sun when I can, supplement with Vitamin D, and embrace my tanless skin.


Roizen, M.F., M.D. & Oz, M.C., M.D. (2007), You Staying Young: The Owner's Manual For Extending Your Warranty, New York: Free Press.

Boyles, S. (2009, July 28).  WHO: Tanning Beds Cause Cancer.  Retrieved February 18, 2011 from
For a list of safer tanning products:

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