Question: I just got off the phone with my granddaughter. She is all excited about spring break at South Padre Island, Texas. She says she cannot wait to lay out in the sun and that she is going to a tanning booth now so she doesn’t get sunburn. Tell me, Ask the Doctor, am I wrong to worry about her in this age of skin cancer, or is she flirting with cancer? She told me not to worry, that she’ll use sunscreen. — Evelyn, of Lima
You’re right to be concerned about your granddaughter’s spring trip to Padre Island. After the winter, Midwesterners — those with a light skin type — have lost whatever adaptation to the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays they acquired during the previous summer. A fast trip from Ohio’s March or mild April sun directly to Padre Island’s intense sunshine is dangerous. It’s a recipe for both acute skin injury — a miserable, blistering sunburn — and delayed skin injury, meaning elevated cancer risk and accelerated skin aging (known as photodamage).
While tanning bed use can temporarily and partially lower the immediate risk of acute injury from the sun’s burning rays (so-called UV-B rays), the kind of ultraviolet energy put out in tanning beds (called UV-A radiation) actually penetrates more deeply into the skin than do the burning UV-B rays in sunshine. (Surprising, but true.) The damage caused by tanning is delayed.
Tanning bed addicts acquire thin, fragile, blotchy, wrinkled, easily bruised and often cancerous skin. By middle age they look old. And yes, it’s common for tanning to become something people crave — like an addiction. Know that both UV-A light, which we can’t see, and UV-B rays (also invisible) are found in sunshine along with visible light.
Skin cancer is epidemic. At West Ohio Dermatology in Lima, we see 2,000 biopsy-proven cases annually. There are several kinds. Overall, about 95% of it is due to ultraviolet radiation in sunshine and tanning beds. Ninety-five percent! In 2019 alone, we diagnosed 78 cases of malignant melanoma, a less common but sometimes deadly form of skin cancer. Most melanomas are also due to sun exposure and tanning beds.
Evelyn, if your granddaughter won’t take my advice to visit Alaska rather than Texas for spring break, tell her to avoid the sun between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The high sun is vicious down there! She needs sunglasses that wrap around the sides a bit. (Eyelid cancer is common. No kidding.) She needs an attractive sun hat with a broad brim, and she must wear it. She needs a cute beach jacket to wear when she’s not in the water. Her sunscreen needs an SPF number of at least 50 and should be applied liberally and often. The cap must be removed from the bottle. She should avoid sharks — especially the human kind — and stay very close to her friends. Avoid drugs like the plague they are. Be strong enough to resist peer pressure.
I went to Daytona Beach for spring break when I was 17. Had a lousy time. Came home with sunburned feet. Tell your granddaughter she and her friends should enjoy spring break here in the Buckeye State. They’ll save a bundle and have a great time. Hocking Hills State Park is wonderful all year long. God’s country. Speaking of God, tell your granddaughter that the skin shade that she was born with is the one that God picked for her! It’s just right.