A suntan is a sign of skin damage. A tan is not a sign of good health, but rather a sign that skin is trying to protect itself from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ tan. Exposure to UV radiation from the sun or a solarium increases your risk of skin cancer and ages your skin. In fact, 80 per cent of fine lines and wrinkles can be attributed to UV exposure.
People with fair skin are at greater risk of developing skin cancer than those with naturally very dark skin.
Many people mistakenly believe that having a tan protects their skin against sunburn and UV damage. In fact, a tan offers minimal protection against sunburn (equivalent to around sun protection factor (SPF 3). Even without burning, UV radiation can cause long-term, irreparable DNA damage.
Over the past 30 years in Australia, campaigns to heighten awareness of skin cancer have resulted in fewer people sunbaking. Commonly used alternatives to sunbaking include fake tanning lotions, tan accelerators and solariums.
Fake tanning lotions, sprays and creams offer little protection from the sun's UV rays. Some brands advertise that they include a high SPF sunscreen. Protection from UV does not last for as long as the fake tan and sunscreen reapplication should occur every two hours. To get the best protection from UV, sunscreen should be used in conjunction with hats, protective clothing, sunglasses and shade.
How skin tans
Skin cells in the top layer of skin (epidermis) produce a pigment called melanin, which gives skin its natural colour. When skin is exposed to UV radiation, more melanin is produced, causing the skin to darken. This is what we know as a ‘tan’. A tan is a sign that the skin is attempting to protect itself against UV damage. It is not a sign of good health.
There is no ‘safe’ tan. Any method that involves exposing the skin to UV radiation by sunlight or solarium will cause skin damage. The more your skin is exposed to UV radiation, the greater the risk of skin cancer and the quicker your skin will age. Comparing the skin on the back of your hand with that on the inside of your thigh will show the damage caused by years of sun exposure.
Australians and tanning
The desire for a tan has been part of the Australian culture since the mid-1900s. However, we now know that deliberately exposing skin to UV radiation increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
Australians are exposed to some of the highest levels of UV radiation in the world. Australia also has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with two in three Australians developing some form of skin cancer before they reach age 70.
Over 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year.
Challenging the tan beauty myth
Recent public awareness campaigns have challenged the perception that tanned skin is more desirable than pale skin. While there have been improvements, the desire for the appearance of tanned skin still exists, especially amongst younger people.
Consequently, alternative tanning methods have become increasingly popular. If you must tan, choose a tanning method that doesn’t use UV radiation (but remember you still require sun protection when using fake tanning products).
Types of tanning products
The range of tanning products available includes:
- topical dyes – tanning lotions, creams, sprays, mousses, combined moisturiser and ‘fake tan’ products. These are generally made up of vegetable dyes that stain the skin a darker colour and give a temporary appearance of a tan, which is why it is referred to as a ‘fake tan’. This colour does not stimulate the production of melanin, nor does it provide protection against UV radiation. The dye is shed, along with dead skin cells, after a few days
- bronzers and tinted sunscreens – tinted cosmetic and sun protection products such as moisturisers, foundation, powders and sunscreen. Bronzers provide the skin with temporary colour that, unlike dyes, wash off with soap and water
- tan accelerators – claim to speed up the natural tanning process by stimulating melanin production in the body. They come in tablet or lotion form. Using tan accelerators for a long time has also been associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. When taken by mouth, the possible side effects of tan accelerator products include nausea, headaches and itchy skin.
- spray tanning booths – these use mister spray guns to apply an even coat of fake tan solution to all, or parts of, the body. They are often found at beauty salons, hairdressers and some gymnasiums.
Tanning products and UV radiation
A few tanning lotions include sunscreens, ranging from sun protection factors (SPF) 4 to 15. However, this protection only lasts for a short time following application and not for the duration of the fake tan, so sunscreen will need to be applied after two hours. Promoting a tanning product as being protective against UV radiation may be misleading.
All tanning products should be used in conjunction with the five sun protection measures – clothing, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, shade and sunglasses.
Tanning products and dihydroxyacetone (DHA)
Fake tan products usually contain three to five per cent of a substance known as dihydroxyacetone (DHA). Professional products can have up to 15 per cent of DHA, with lower concentrations producing a light tan and higher concentrations producing a darker tan.
DHA is considered safe for topical application to the skin. However, there is currently no conclusive research available regarding the safety of DHA exposure to the eyes, lips, mucous membranes or internal organs via ingestion or inhalation.
While there is no absolute evidence that spray tans can be harmful to humans, recent research has shown that DHA is potentially harmful if inhaled, as it can enter the lungs and be absorbed into the blood stream where it could damage DNA and cause tumours.
If you are getting a spray tan, make sure you are in a well-ventilated area, not a confined space, and wear goggles and a protective mask.
Tan accelerators are available in tablet or lotion form. These preparations contain the chemicals psoralen and tyrosine, among others. These chemicals contribute to the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin colour.
With sensitised melanin cells, it is possible to get a suntan in a shorter time than usual. However, these products don’t provide any sun protection.
There is no evidence that the topical use of tyrosine has any effect on melanin cells. When applied to the skin, tan accelerator products can cause painful conditions, including blistering.
Psoralen should only be used under medical supervision to treat skin problems such as psoriasis.
Using tan accelerators for a long time has also been associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. When taken by mouth, the possible side effects of tan accelerator products include nausea, headaches and itchy skin.
A solarium tan is not a safe tan
Some Australians use solariums (also known as sunbeds, sunlamps or tanning beds) with the mistaken belief that these devices provide ‘safe’ tans. In fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that people who use a solarium before the age of 35 have a 59 per cent greater risk of melanoma than those who do not use solariums.
The risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancers is also increased. Using a solarium increases the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 67 per cent and basal cell carcinoma by 29 per cent, when compared to people who have never used a solarium.
The findings of the recent Australian Melanoma Family Study indicate that sunbed use is not only associated with increased risk of early-onset melanoma, but that the risk increases with greater use and an earlier age at first use. Another study based in the USA found a strong relationship between the amount of melanoma risk and total hours, sessions or years using a solarium.
It is estimated that one in six melanomas in Australians aged 18 to 29 years, could be prevented if solariums were shut down.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has moved ultraviolet emitting tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category and labelled them as ‘carcinogenic to humans’. Solariums can also cause eye damage, immediate skin damage (such as sunburn, irritation, redness and swelling) and possible immune system changes.
A solarium tans the skin by irradiating it with a concentrated dose of UV, which may be up to three times as strong as the midday summer sun. Solarium use is not a safe way to tan and a solarium tan won’t protect your skin from further damage from natural UV radiation.
In Victoria, it is illegal for solarium operators to advertise their services as safe. It is also against the law to allow people under the age of 18 or people who have skin that burns and doesn’t tan to use these facilities.
In Australia, many states and territories have passed legislation that bans commercial tanning units (solariums). The ban for Victoria will come into effect on 1 January 2015.
Cancer Council Australia and the Australasian College of Dermatologists do not support tanning in solariums in any circumstances.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information and support
- Multilingual Cancer Information Line, Victoria Tel. 13 14 50
Things to remember
- The desire for the appearance of tanned skin is still high, especially among younger Australians.
- ‘Fake tanning’ lotions may provide a safer way to change the tone of your skin, but they do not usually offer sun protection.
- The UV radiation emitted by solariums contributes to skin and eye damage, and an increased risk of skin cancer.
- Both tans from the sun and solariums are a sign that your skin has been damaged by too much UV radiation exposure.