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Can there ever be such a thing as a safe tan?

There are many myths around sun protection and suntanning in Australia, a land with plenty of sun year round. Is there such thing as a safe tan? 

We frequently hear of how people don’t like having “pasty white skin”, how they love the feel of the sun on their skin and in skin cancer clinic weekly, I meet at least one or two people who love the sun so much, they still sunbathe, regularly, most days, with variable amounts of sunscreen, from none to some.

One patient whom I diagnosed a skin cancer on, not their first, even said “You gotta die of something doc!”

Equally, I see some beautiful tans on these days, mostly unintentional, due to incidental sun exposure and hear many of the myths addressed in an earlier blog post.

Today, I want to delve into what actually happens when we tan, intentionally or otherwise ie is it ever possible to tan safely?

Short answer? No.

Excess UV exposure is estimated to contribute to 95% of melanomas and 99% of non-melanoma skin cancers. These skin cancers account for up to 80% of all new cancers each year in Australia.

In countries such as Australia, the amount of sun exposure, especially in the warmer months in southern states and all year around in northern states, is so high that even a few minutes of incidental exposure - checking the mail; hanging up the washing; collecting the kids from school; walking to your car- all adds up to hours and days of exposure over months, years and a lifetime.

When it comes to tanning, I regularly say to people, ANY degree of tanning is an indicator that your skin is under stress, due to higher than normal amounts of incidental sun exposure, triggering a protective mechanisms, resulting in increased activity of your melanin (pigment) producing cells, the melanocytes ie your tan.

Even so, this tan is not really protective at all, giving your skin an SPF, studies indicate, of about SPF 2. Ie if you are someone who would normally go red with sun exposure in 10 minutes, an SPF of 2 means you would now burn in 20 minutes

2/3 of Australians will develop a skin cancer over their lifetimes - a single incident of sunburn increases your risk of melanoma by 20% from baseline, and the cumulative sun damage over decades of UVA, which penetrate deeper and cause damage, premature skin ageing and cellular damage, are largely responsible for the non-melanoma skin cancers that we see in older people 50 and up.

That aside, 90% of sundamage and ageing related skin changes are avoidable through rigorous sun protection - leathery wrinkled skin; yellowish tinge to skin, age/ liver spots and much more.

What if I like the way I look when tanned?

Fortunately spray tans can give you most of the joys of looking vibrant, and healthy without any of the associated damage of a tan.

How do I minimise my risk of sundamage without avoiding life?

Unfortunately, most Aussies know the feeling of sunburn all too well. The red, painful skin that stings when you touch it. The blisters and peeling that can break out for days afterwards. It's so common that 2.4 million Aussies get burnt every weekend in summer.

- get into the habit of wearing SPF 30+ daily
- most of us would not leave home without brushing our teeth - place your SPF next to your toothpaste and slather it on after your teeth
- carry a spare tube of SPF in your bag (do not leave it in the car where it will degrade) and reapply frequently as SPF is designed to have maximum efficacy for 2 hours only
- do not rely on SPF alone for your sun protection - carry a hat, sunglasses and wear protective clothing where possible and seek shade

Additionally, I’d suggest that all Australians should add regular skin checks to their preventive health repertoire from their 20s annually, in addition to regular self skin checks.

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