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Tanning — the good, the bad and the ugly of this summer ritual

Sunscreen is not an option if you plan to spend any time outdoors, even if it's an overcast day. Buy sunscreen with water resistance. No such thing as waterproof exists. | stock.adobe.com

Now that Chicago’s weather is taunting us with 95-degree days, it’s time to hit the beach – but remember to bring the sunscreen.

Local experts warn that skin cancers precipitated by sun-bathing skin damage are the most common form of cancer, with more than 5 million cases diagnosed each year nationwide. That includes not only Caucasians, but also people of Asian, Latino and African-American descent – many of whom find out they’re affected too late for treatment.

Indeed, 20 percent of Americans will develop some form of skin cancer by age 70, and doctors say they’re seeing more millennials than ever seek treatment for sunbathing-caused skin damage.

Dr. Steve Xu, an instructor in the Department of Dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said the youngest person he sees for a sun or tanning-related skin cancer is 21 years old.

“Millennials are probably 20 to 30 percent of all of the patients we see each week for skin checks,” he said.

The alarming statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation and related research show other dangers:

◆ In the past decade, cases of the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, characterized by dark skin splotches, jumped by 53 percent. An estimated 178,560 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year in the United States.

◆ Melanoma cases skyrocketed by 800 percent among U.S. women ages 18 to 39 from 1970 to 2009.

◆ Late-stage melanoma diagnoses are more prevalent among Hispanic and African-American patients than non-Hispanic white patients; 52 percent of non-Hispanic black patients and 26 percent of Hispanic patients receive an initial diagnosis of advanced stage melanoma, versus 16 percent of white patients.

◆ Young women increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent when they lie in a tanning bed before they’re 35 years old.

◆ The annual cost of treating skin cancers in the United States is estimated at $8.1 billion — about $4.8 billion for non-melanoma skin cancers and $3.3 billion for melanoma.

Morgan Murphrey, 26, poses for a portrait near her River North apartment. Murphrey wears sunblock even on a cloudy day. | Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times
Morgan Murphrey, 26, poses for a portrait near her River North apartment. Murphrey wears sunblock even on a cloudy day. | Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

A 26-year-old medical student who is doing research at Northwestern University says she learned her lesson after she started studying dermatology in medical school.

Morgan Murphrey, a student at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb., grew up in Sacramento, Calif.

She regularly ran out to the beach after class and on weekends with her fellow students when she was an undergrad at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

“When I started classes in medical school, I learned that the sun does more damage to your skin than I had ever realized,” Murphrey said.

“I came to understand the pathophysiology behind how UV radiation makes your skin susceptible to cancer.”

While Murphrey completed her clinical rotations at a Creighton University-affiliated hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., she conducted a survey at her alma mater sorority among women ages 18 to 22 – and discovered they, too, had misunderstood the harms of tanning and bought into sunbathing myths.

Many of the young women believed it was beneficial to sunbathe in a tanning bed to get a “base” tan before they started their summer sunbathing. It’s not.

Some didn’t know what SPF meant on a tanning lotion. Others thought it was OK to go outside on a cloudy day with no sunscreen.

Many people believe it’s beneficial to sunbathe in a tanning bed to get a “base” tan before they started their summer sunbathing. It’s not. | stock.adobe.com
Many people believe it’s beneficial to sunbathe in a tanning bed to get a “base” tan before they started their summer sunbathing. It’s not. | stock.adobe.com

Now, Murphrey aims to up-end those myths as a future dermatologist who can get the message across to her peers without sermonizing. Part of the answer is timing. For example, she discovered that the best time to warn people about the dangers of tanning beds is during cooler months, when there’s no sunbathing outdoors and when people turn to indoor tanning.

Dr. David Reid, Stroger Hospital’s dermatologist, said it’s best to avoid being out in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when ultraviolet radiation’s intensity peaks, and it’s a wise idea to get into the habit of applying sunscreen every day, year-round.

“It should be a habit akin to brushing your teeth,” he said.

That’s because sun exposure is cumulative: It builds up over time.

“Over time, the damage does add up and can be significant,” Reid said.

Experts also advise:

— Keep babies less than six months old out of the sun.

— Wear clothing to protect against the sun, including wide-brimmed hats that cover your ears and longer-sleeved shirts.

— Wear UV-protection shirts rather than plain white cotton T-shirts.

— Make sure your sunscreen provides sufficient strength. A sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) should be greater than 30.

— Look for a lotion with broad spectrum protection to shield you from both UV-A and UV-B rays.

— Buy sunscreen with water resistance. No such thing as waterproof exists. If you’re going to be sweating or splashing in the water, you’re reducing the ability of the sunscreen to protect you.

— Make sure you apply enough sunscreen – at least a shot-glass amount. For the face alone, use at least a nickel-sized dollop.

— Beware sun protection sprays and stick roll-ons. They may be more convenient, but make sure you spread the lotion or gel evenly and broadly across your skin.

— Keep applying sunscreen – watch the clock and re-apply 15 minutes before time’s up for a 40-minute stay in the sun.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.

WATCH FOR THESE KEY SIGNS OF MELANOMA

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone check their skin for the ABCDE’s of melanoma. The warning signs of this disease include:

— A is for Asymmetry: One half of the spot is unlike the other half.

— B is for Border: The spot has an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.

— C is for Color: The spot has varying colors from one area to the next, such as shades of tan, brown or black, or areas of white, red or blue.

— D is for Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters — or about the size of a pencil eraser — when diagnosed, they can be smaller.

— E is for Evolving: The spot looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color. Even if you don’t have any other symptoms, see a board-certified dermatologist if you notice one of these signs or notice an existing mole start to evolve or change in any way.

“When detected early, skin cancer, including melanoma, is highly treatable, making it imperative to check your skin regularly,” said Dr. Ali Hendi, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in a statement. “It only takes a few minutes to check your skin, and it could save your life.”

To perform a skin self-exam, Hendi recommends the following tips:

— Examine your entire body — front and back — using a full-length mirror. Then, look at your right and left sides with your arms raised.

— Bend your elbows and look carefully at your forearms, underarms and palms.

— Look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and the soles of your feet. Check your fingernails and toenails; make sure to remove any nail polish first.

— Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part your hair for a closer look.

— Finally, check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror. Consider asking a partner to help, as another set of eyes can be helpful for checking the back and other hard-to-see areas.