Although exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is known to cause skin cancer - the most common of all cancers in the US, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) - many people are still looking for that perfect tan. This is because tanned skin has been perceived as a sign of health and beauty for many years. However, according to Dr. Alysa Herman, M.D., a micrographic skin surgeon experienced with the Mohs technique and affiliated with South Miami Hospital, Baptist Hospital, and Doctors Hospital, the reverse is true. She and other experts say that tanning is a sign of skin damage that could lead to melanoma.
The sun is not the only source of tanning - or of UV rays that damage the skin. Young people continue to flock to tanning beds, despite the dangers of indoor tanning that have been widely reported. Tanning salons use lamps that emit dangerous UV-A and UV-B rays, say scientists from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that tanning devices are more dangerous than previously thought and placed them in the highest risk category for cancer: "Carcinogenic to humans." In fact, many states have legislated to limit artificial tanning by teens, and several states have passed laws prohibiting it for people under the age of 18. In a just-released notice, the Surgeon General urges people to stop sunbathing and avoid tanning beds, according to a news report by Yahoo / Associated Press.
"Research continues to show that tanning beds are not a safe alternative to sunbathing and that they have many unwanted side effects, including signs of premature aging and the most important side effect - skin cancer," said Dr. Herman. The Skin Cancer Foundation cautions high school and college students that just one indoor tanning session per year increases the risk of developing a life-threatening melanoma by 20 percent. The risk of basal cell carcinoma, a type of non-melanoma skin cancer, increases by 25 percent after just one or two tanning sessions and rises to 73 percent after six or more sessions. "There is no such thing as a safe tan, whether it is obtained on the beach in the sun or produced artificially on a tanning bed in a salon," said Dr. Herman. "Whether your skin turns red signaling a sunburn or brown showing a tan, both colors are evidence that damage is taking place."
More than 77,000 cases of melanoma and 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer will be diagnosed in the US this year, according to the ACS. And the incidence of melanoma - an aggressive form of skin cancer - has risen a staggering 200 percent since 1973, reports the Acting US Surgeon General. ACS experts say that everyone is at risk for skin cancer, regardless of race or ethnicity. It is more common, however, in people with fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, a history of sunburn in early life, and prolonged exposure to UV rays. The good news, says Dr. Herman, is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. The best way to reduce your risk is to avoid prolonged exposure to UV radiation.
"Keep your skin healthy by avoiding tanning beds, cover your skin with sunscreen and protective clothing daily, and use self-tanners to achieve the appearance of a tan without damaging the skin," said Dr. Herman. Additional steps in skin protection include routinely evaluating your skin and reporting any changes to your dermatologist, especially new growth; changes in the size or color of a mole, growth, or pinpoint; or a sore that won't heal, says Dr. Herman. Consult your dermatologist about how often to screen for skin cancer, and follow your doctor's instructions. Skin cancer is very treatable if caught in the early stages. To detect signs of melanoma, you need to know your ABCDEs: A is for asymmetry: Asymmetry means that one half of a mole does not match the other half. B is for a border: A mole that has uneven, blurred, or irregular borders should be checked. C is for color: A mole that has shades of beige, brown, black, blue, white, or red is suspicious. D is for the diameter: A mole is suspect if the diameter is larger than a pencil eraser. E is for Evolution: A mole that is evolving - shrinking, getting bigger, changing color, itching, or bleeding - should be evaluated.