Tanning Myths Exposed: What's True And What's Hype?

With summer quickly approaching, you should know these tanning myths and general facts and information on being in the sun.

Rates of skin cancer have been rising steadily for the last 50 years. With summer quickly approaching, it’s time to clear up some tanning myths—and learn a little more about being in the sun.

Indoor tanning doesn’t cause melanoma: MYTH

You’d think you would have to live under a rock to believe that indoor tanning doesn’t cause cancer. But the Indoor Tanning Association (yes, that is a real thing) claims this is not certain.

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"There are a lot of studies out there and a lot of conflicting evidence about what causes melanoma," says John Overstreet, the executive director of the ITA. He goes on to claim that skin cancer is largely hereditary but does conclude that if skin cancer runs in your family, you should definitely stay away from an indoor tanning bed. You don't say...

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Of course we have all been told how bad tanning is for us, which is the exact sentiment of David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, chairman of dermatology and director of the melanoma program at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School and president of the Melanoma Research Foundation. He says, "There is no question that ultraviolet exposure is associated with an increased risk of melanoma.”

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There is also research that shows those who do indoor tanning before the age of 35 increase their risk of skin cancer by 75 percent.

Outdoor tanning doesn’t cause skin cancer: MYTH

Again, you'd have to be living under a rock to believe this one! But there are people who don’t think that outdoor tanning causes skin cancer. Fortunately, those people are few and far between, but an article in the British Journal of Dermatology reports that the sun is merely a scapegoat for what causes melanoma skin cancer.

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They claim that people are reported having skin cancer when in reality they just have a cancerous lesion, not necessarily skin cancer, nor is it caused by the sun. "These findings should lead to a reconsideration of the treatment of 'early' lesions, a search for better diagnostic methods to distinguish them from truly malignant melanomas, re-evaluation of the role of ultraviolet radiation and recommendations for protection from it.”

The authors go on to express that we should be searching in a new direction for the cause of melanoma.

You only get vitamin D from the sun: MYTH

There are some theories that say you can only get your daily dose of vitamin D from natural sunlight and a small amount of UV radiation. Health journalist Kathleen Doheny says that “Limited exposure to natural sun—exposing skin to about two to 10 minutes a day without sunscreen—is recommended by some experts as a way to produce enough vitamin D.”

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In truth, however, we can get our dose of vitamin D from a variety of other sources like “milk, cereal, yogurt, and orange juice fortified with vitamin D as well as salmon, mackerel, and tuna.” There is also an easy over-the-counter pill you can take to get your daily dose of vitamin D.

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Although the sun does provide vitamin D, levels can fluctuate daily depending on your location and the weather, so the surest thing to do is take a pill or eat vitamin D–rich foods.

Tanning doesn’t cause signs of aging: MYTH

Have you ever looked at someone and thought their skin was beginning to look like leather? Okay, that is kind of mean, but that appearance can often be caused by prolonged periods in the sun.

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If you remember the movie There’s Something About Mary, Mary’s roommate was an old, tan lady who was always shown with that aluminum face shield thing that directs sunlight into your face—hence the wrinkles.

What causes this look is the two different UV rays that come from the sun: UVA and UVB. “UVA rays are the rays that cause tanning as well as wrinkles and other signs of premature aging, and UVB rays cause sunburns and skin cancer. But both ultimately damage your skin. UV rays are more powerful during the summer months,” writes Krisha McCoy on Everyday Health.

If your appearance is important to you, something to keep in mind is that the tanner you get, the more wrinkled you’ll get. So limit your time in the sun and always wear sunscreen to help prevent burns.

And now for some key information about sunscreen and how you're probably using it wrong!

We have briefly discussed the difference between UVA and UVB rays, both of which are bad and should be protected against. In order to shield yourself from the harmful rays, you should always apply sunscreen. The best time to do that is a full half hour before you go out in the sun so it has time to soak in and not wash off with sweat or water.

Furthermore, the Skin Cancer Foundation has some great information about just how important reapplication is:

“Reapplication of sunscreen is just as important as putting it on in the first place, so reapply the same amount every two hours. Sunscreens should also be reapplied immediately after swimming, toweling off, or sweating a great deal.”

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The right amount of sunscreen to be applied is one ounce every two hours (which is about a single shot glass worth, for those of you who measure things that way).

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Most people apply less than that and therefore do not get the full protection benefit of the sunscreen.

Who should wear sunscreen?

Anyone over the age of 6 months should use a sunscreen daily. Even those who spend most of their time indoors are exposed to ultraviolet radiation for brief periods throughout the day, especially if they work near windows, which generally filter out UVB but not UVA rays.

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If you have an infant who is under 6 months old then the best thing to do is cover them in clothing and keep them in the shade, because the chemicals in sunscreen can be harmful to a baby's skin.

As for people who are out on cloudy days, they too should always wear sunscreen. “Up to 40 percent of the sun's ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth on a completely cloudy day. This misperception often leads to the most serious sunburns, because people spend all day outdoors with no protection from the sun,” the Skin Cancer Foundation cautions. 

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Always be mindful of the sun, even indoors, by windows, and on cloudy days.

What is SPF anyway?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. It’s a measure of the sunscreen’s ability to protect the skin from harmful UVB rays. To break it down into math and time, it takes about 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to begin turning red, but if you use SPF 15 sunscreen, then essentially your skin won’t turn red for 15 times as long. (So in this case, instead of 20 minutes, your skin will turn red after 300 minutes.)

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That does not account for sweat or water, though, so to be safe you should reapply every two hours. There is another way to look at SPF in terms of percentages: “SPF 15 filters out approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent and SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent,” the Skin Cancer Foundation explains.

It may not seem like a lot, but those small differences make quite an impact on sun protection and sensitivity, especially when you apply sunscreen throughout the day.

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The tricky thing is that even when your skin becomes red, that is an effect of UVB rays alone and doesn’t let you know the actual damage happening underneath, which is done by UVA rays. So it's always best to play it safe and stay covered!

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