Despite decades of dire warnings from physicians and public health officials, many people continue to underestimate the dangers of sun exposure. Indeed, many people continue to seek out the “perfect” tan, believing that it’s one of the key components of a great summer vacation. More than half of teens, for example, actually believe that a good tan makes them look healthier, and nearly two-thirds of them believe it makes a person more attractive. The medical evidence, however, is overwhelming: there is no healthy way to get a tan, and protecting yourself from the sun’s rays is an important part of maintaining the health of your skin.
The dangers of tanning come primarily from the sun’s ultraviolet light, including both ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) rays. Tanning is the skin’s natural defensive response to overexposure to UVB rays in particular, through inflammatory mediators, a chemical that causes minuscule blood vessels in the skin to become irritated and swell, which turns the skin red. UVA rays, meanwhile, go even deeper into the skin, causing damage directly to the DNA within skin cells. This process can increase a person’s likelihood of developing skin cancer. UVB rays also can cause cancer, primarily by affecting the genetic structure of melanocytes, the cells responsible for skin pigment. For these reasons, protecting the skin from sun exposure is incredible important.
Luckily, reducing UV exposure is easy. Naturally, sunscreen is essential, and doctors recommend using products that are labeled for use against both UVA and UVB rays with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. The average adult should apply an ounce of sunscreen to their whole body at least 15 minutes before going outside. It’s necessary to reapply the same amount every two hours, or more frequently if you’re doing strenuous activities or swimming. Other methods for preventing sun exposure include wearing sunglasses with UV protection, long sleeves and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat. If you can, avoid prolonged sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.