Achieving bronzed, sun-kissed skin has a long history. The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) outlines the transition from desired pale, porcelain skin to the “culture of the healthy tan.” Beginning in the 1920s, tanning transitioned from a symbol of lower socioeconomic status, to a representation of travel, leisure and money. Fast-forward to the 1970s, where Good Housekeeping identified the use of tanning oil as one of the worst beauty trends of the decade. Not to mention, the AJPH sites 1978 as the year the first indoor tanning facility opened in the United States. The tanning fad that began decades ago sustained itself all the way into the 20th century and today. All the while, rates of melanoma and skin cancer kept climbing.
Sunburn Tattoos and Other Tanning Trends
In 2013, a new and dangerous trend starting becoming popular with teens and young adults. Instead of bashing tan lines, sun seekers turned to deliberately getting sunburns in specific shapes or designs. In July 2015, this trend sparked the hot hashtag #sunburntattoo.
In addition to sunburn tattoos, Rachel Dow, Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Program Coordinator at UnityPoint Health, talks about other reasons people use to justify tanning, such as big events like prom, spring break or vacations.
“Getting a ‘base tan’ is still a common misconception people believe. This is harmful because people think that it will help them stay safe and not get burned. Getting any sort of tan is damaging to the skin, which can cause cancer, aging of the skin and other harmful effects,” Rachel said.
Rachel’s colleague, Gina Mandernach, RN, BSN, OCN, Oncology Outreach Coordinator, echoes just how dangerous indoor tanning can be.
“Tanning beds are classified by the World Health Organization as Class I carcinogens, the same classification as cigarettes,” Gina said. “This means we know with absolute certainty that tanning beds cause cancer.”
Characteristics of Melanoma
While indoor tanning rates have declined recently, it is still a major health concern. Melanoma is the second highest cancer in young adults, ages 15-24, and the highest cancer for ages 25-29.
“Sustaining five or more sunburns in youth increases an individual’s lifetime risk of melanoma by 80 percent. The more tan or burns someone receives over a lifetime just keeps increasing this risk,” Rachel said.
There are three types of skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma – but of the three, melanoma can present the most-varying symptoms.
“Melanoma can take on a variety of characteristics, but an easy way to remember the characteristics of melanoma is A, B, C, D and E,” Gina said.
If you notice any of the following, contact your primary care provider or dermatologist.
- A= Asymmetry (one half of the mole doesn’t match the other half)
- B= Border (ragged, notched, irregular)
- C= Color (uneven, may be a mix of colors like black, brown, red or blue)
- D= Diameter (larger than the size of a pencil eraser)
- E= Evolving (a mole that changes)
“Melanoma can be a very aggressive cancer with an amazing ability to spread to other areas of the body. If you notice something concerning, it’s best to get it checked out right away. Having any type of skin cancer puts one at risk for developing more skin cancer down the road, so it’s important to be aware of all of your moles and freckles and regularly check for any changes,” Gina said.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone, regardless of age, practice monthly head-to-toe self-examinations of their skin, so that they can recognize any new or changing lesions that might be concerning.
Shield Your Skin
Avoiding sun exposure and tanning beds are a large part of preventing melanoma and other skin cancers, but so is sunscreen. One of the biggest misconceptions about sunscreen is that to get better protection, you need higher sun protection factor (SPF) levels. But, that’s not always true.
Although SPF 100 sunscreen blocks 99 percent of damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays, SPF 50 still blocks 98 percent. SPF 30 is only slightly less effective, blocking 97 percent of skin-damaging radiation. High SPF levels can lull people into a false sense of security. Someone may apply a high-SPF lotion only once per day, instead of every two hours, as recommended. For this reason, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying to cap SPF ratings at 50.
What’s Your SPF Number?
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that adults and children of all skin types use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and one that is broad-spectrum, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. No matter the SPF, reapply sunscreen regularly – ideally every two hours – particularly after swimming or engaging in activities that make you sweat. Finally, avoid sunscreen with para-aminobenzoic acid, or PABA, if you have sensitive skin.
“Sunscreen should stay useable for two years. After that, it starts to lose its effectiveness. Not all bottles have an expiration date printed on them. We recommend writing the date purchased in marker on a new bottle, so you know when it’s time to change it out,” Gina said.
Take Care of Your Skin
During the warmer months and throughout the year, be sure to regularly examine moles and freckles – on both your family members and yourself. If you have any questions about changes you notice, contact your UnityPoint Health provider or dermatologist.