Watching Out for Winter Tans

Published on Jan 12, 2016

While most people think covering up from the sun is a worry for those long summer days at the beach, UV exposure can happen all year long, even in the winter. That’s why preventing skin cancer should be a year-round consideration, with special attention for particular, at-risk individuals when temperatures drop.

Suntans and sunburns are telltale signs of exposure to UV (ultraviolet) rays, and a major cause of skin cancer. In fact, statistics show more than 1 out of every 3 Americans report getting sunburned each year. Exposure to UV light causes nearly 90% of melanomas, the most serious of skin cancer types, and although melanoma accounts for less than 2% of skin cancer cases, it is responsible for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.

Most At Risk For Winter Sun

Have you ever sat in your car on a cold day and felt warmed by the winter sun through the windshield? It’s a nice feeling, but even in winter, you should be aware of UV exposure and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 30. Also, that warm winter sun reflects off of snow and can direct intensified UV rays on any part of your skin that’s exposed, putting you at risk.

Make sure to care for your skin from head to toe. The following at-risk people should take special care to cover up vulnerable skin with clothing, hats, masks, and especially sun protective lotion:

  • Individuals who work outdoors and do not wear sunscreen every day
  • Skiers, snowboarders, surfers, golfers, and athletes who spend time outdoors in a variety of seasons
  • Postal workers, sanitation workers, construction, and professionals who work outdoors in all seasons
  • People who are prone to skin cancer, or who have had skin cancer
  • Anyone with a genetic component or family history of skin cancer

Skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer there is. So cover up, slather on the sunscreen, and by all means, remember this very important tip: Reapply sunscreen every two hours, as one coat doesn’t last all day.

Beliefs About Indoor Tanning

Some people believe getting a base tan from a tanning bed will protect against sunburn before they take a trip somewhere warm and sunny. Others step into a tanning bed before a special event, such as a wedding, prom, or graduation, believing that just one session at the tanning salon won’t hurt. And, there are those who simply like how they feel when they are in a tanning bed, believing these feelings to be harmless. Unfortunately, none of these common beliefs are true. Here’s why:

  • Tanning-bed use exposes you to harmful UV rays. Exposure to UV rays in a tanning salon does not offer protection for later exposure to the sun. It only exacerbates your exposure and puts you more at risk for skin cancer
  • Indoor tanning does not prevent sunburns. According to the CDC, people who tan indoors actually report more sunburns than people who don’t. Additionally, indoor tanning also increases risk of eye cancer, damages skin texture, and causes premature aging with wrinkles and dark spots
  • One session is one too many. Going to the tanning salon before a special occasion creates an unnecessary exposure to UV rays. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, even one indoor tanning session can increase risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 67% and basal cell carcinoma by 29%. If you need to go somewhere special, or don’t want to look pale in your bathing suit, it is safer to use a spray tan
  • You don’t need a tanning bed for Vitamin D. You can get a healthy dose of vitamin D by exposing your face and hands in the summer sun for about 10 minutes, 2 or 3 times a week. This will minimize your exposure to UV light. Additionally, low-fat milk, salmon, tuna, and fortified orange juice are healthy sources of vitamin D.

Indoor Tanning and Young People

While skin cancer prevention programs focus on increasing knowledge of the dangers of UV light overexposure, most programs fail to alter tanning behavior and attitudes among adolescents and young adults. Tanning salons are especially popular where there are colleges and universities, and advertisements promoting them are often geared toward college students with coupons and offers of a free first tanning bed session.

Each year, more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer — about 6,000 of which are melanomas — are estimated to be related to indoor tanning in the US. Additionally, one out of three Caucasian women use indoor tanning each year.  

According to pilot studies, frequent indoor tanning (8 to 15 sessions a month) created addiction-like reactions in young people who participated in research. This research suggests UV light can lead to abuse and dependence. Many parents are not aware of the dangers or the habits of young people who indulge in indoor tanning. Recently, policy makers have taken notice of these trends and have begun to regulate, restrict, or ban indoor tanning for minors as a health safety measure.

If you are a frequent tanning salon user, or if you are a parent, make sure you understand the dangers of indoor tanning. As a rule, consider it best to avoid indoor tanning entirely in order to prevent damaged skin and reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Mandeep Kaur, MD, MS was the Therapeutic Team Lead in Dermatology during her employment at Pfizer.

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External Resources

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After reading this article, how likely are you to take sun protection precautions all year-round, including winter?

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