Quit fooling yourself—ditch your tanning habit now
By Karen Kwan
You look over at some of the guys in your gym and you’re just as fit as they are, but their bronzed skin makes them look defined and more tone. So you find yourself popping into the tanning salon and lying out on your patio in the sunshine whenever you can. As long as you’re not burning, it’s fine, you tell yourself—and besides, your body needs vitamin D.
Your thinking could not be more wrong. Your tanning habit could lead to skin cancer, and barring that, it will lead to sun spots and wrinkles, worsen your rosacea, and more—all things that you’re probably trying to minimize by using an arsenal of expensive skin care serums and lotions.
So why the continued pursuit of a tanned physique, and the foolish belief that only a burn is harmful? “It’s probably our fault,” says Toronto-based dermatologist Julia Carroll. “Back in the day, sunscreen only protected against UVB, the rays that cause burning, and so we focused on that aspect.” One bad burn can double the risk of melanoma, she explains—but constant, low-level exposure to the sun can lead to non-melanoma skin cancers, not to mention sun-damaged skin in terms of fine lines, etc.
Even when you wear sunscreen, UV rays do come through and affect your skin, she explains: “With SPF 15, six per cent comes through; with SPF 30, three per cent, and SPF 50, two per cent.” She compares sunscreen to a bucket with a hole. That hole will allow water (or UV rays) to stream through, leading eventually to a drenching of what’s underneath (or, in the case of sun care, a tan).
And that tan should not be seen as protecting your skin from a burn; a tan only provides about an SPF 2 of protection. Here’s how Dr. Carroll compares the dangers of a tan all summer to a burn: “One tan versus one burn? A burn is worse,” she says. “But one burn versus being tanned the whole summer—I think the tan can be seen as worse, when you consider that you’re looking at it as summer-long tanning during which you are constantly damaging your skin and damaging DNA.”
• Wear an SPF of at least 30 daily.
•The SPF number refers to how long the product will protect you from UVB rays relative to how long it would take your skin to burn if unprotected. Say it normally takes 10 minutes for your skin to start to burn in the sun without SPF. An SPF 30 product would protect you 30 times longer, i.e., 300 minutes.
•Reapply sunscreen every two hours (more often if you go swimming or sweat a lot, from your soccer game or landscaping work, for example).
• Experiment with different brands and types of sunscreen. Dr. Carroll compares finding the SPF that’s right for you to matchmaking. “The best sunscreen for a patient is one they will wear easily and often,” she says.
• A higher SPF number doesn’t mean significantly higher protection (a SPF 30 product doesn’t offer twice the level of protection of a product with SPF 15, for example). “The higher numbers are usually due to increased UVA protection,” explains Dr. Carroll. She doesn’t typically recommend sunscreens with very high SPF to patients (“It’s the law of diminishing returns when you go with a higher SPF number—many people don’t need that, plus they tend to be more expensive and less cosmetically elegant,” she says). In theory, you could reapply these products less often, but she notes that getting into the habit of applying every two hours is ideal.
KAREN KWAN is a freelance health, travel and lifestyle writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @healthswellness and on Instagram at @healthandswellness.