Like suntanning? We have some bad news.

It’s summertime. And we all love a suntan. It makes you look healthy and sexy. Or so you think. The truth is that to your skin, there’s no difference between a healthy-looking suntan and a severe sunburn. 

You read right. Sunburn. BS, you say? Think again. The ultraviolet rays of the sun that make that nice, dark tan are hard at work trying to create genetic mutations in your skin cells, which lead to melanoma, or skin cancer. 

The bad news is that this damage is cumulative and irreversible. If you're lucky, years from now, your soft, young skin will age prematurely, making you look like tough leather or a raisin. If you’re lucky. 

A suntan, like a sunburn, results from exposure to the ultraviolet radiation found in sunlight. Both sunburn and suntan are caused when ultraviolet rays damage your DNA, which can be the first step on the pathway to cancer. Each time you lay out on a lounge or on the beach worshiping the sun, you are adding more and more damage to your skin’s DNA, eventually triggering the formation of basal cell or other forms of skin cancer. And if that happens, the cancer must be removed with invasive surgery, leaving a terrible scar on the affected area. 

But you’re dark-skinned, you say. That only happens to light-skinned albinos like me. Sadly, no. Even dark-skinned people can be impacted by excessive exposure to the sun, as this article from the BBC clearly reports. Yes, while light skinned people like me are at much higher risk, the truth is that all of us are at risk. And contrary to what you have been told, having a tan won’t give you more protection. 

Don’t get me wrong. Having some sun is good for your health. We need Vitamin D. It’s crucial for bone and immune system health. Vitamin D is activated in your body when you expose your skin to sunlight. Recent medical studies suggest that just a half hour or more of exposure to sunlight will cause an enormous amount of the vitamin to circulate in your bloodstream. But too much sunlight can be deadly.

When we’re younger, we don’t pause to think about what damage we could be doing to our skin by laying out in the sun. We want to be attractive, so naturally, we listen to all the hype about looking great and worship the sun god. But because the damage we cause from laying in the sun is cumulative, that’s why cancers tend to occur later in life, and why overexposure to UV radiation beginning early in our lives can have such a dramatic impact on our chances of developing skin cancer.

Need proof? Medical studies like this one from the National Institutes of Health, or this one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, or this one on the dangers of tanning beds from the Canadian Cancer Society go into real detail. The bottom line is this: too much sun, either from cumulative daily exposure, or intermittent, intense exposure (like laying out around the pool all afternoon) put you at extreme risk of permanently damaging your skin, causing skin cancer, even life-threatening versions. 

Some fun facts:

  • Melanoma is the sixth most common fatal malignancy in the United States, responsible for 4% of all cancer deaths and 6 of every 7 skin cancer-related deaths.
  • One in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetimes, which means that each year there are at least one million new cases in the U.S. alone. 
  • Nonmelanoma skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are also on the rise, with two million new cases every year.
  • Your risks for cancer are highest if you get one, heavy dose of sunlight infrequently, or if you constantly expose yourself to lots of sun every day.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

  • Cover yourself. Wear a hat. Cover as much of your body as possible if you’re going to be outside for more than an hour, especially in the middle of the day.
  • Every time you go outside, put on sunscreen of at least SPF 70 (waterproof sunscreen is recommended if you exercise outdoors). If you have to be out for a long time in intense sun, such as sailing or hiking in the mountains, put on sunblock such as zinc oxide. It’s messy, but highly protective. Put on sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside for maximum protection. And look for a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen that protects against UVB and UVA radiation.
  • Have it made in the shade. Try to take breaks in the shade or stay indoors during the middle of the day, when solar radiation is at its most intense. A good rule of thumb is to look at your shadow. The less of your shadow you see, the more UV radiation hitting you.
  • Avoid large doses of sunlight. Cancer can develop from a big dose of sun once in a while, or daily doses of sun.
  • Cloudy weather? Surprise! You can burn yourself badly even on cloudy days, especially in the tropics. Hazy weather can often make you more prone for a terrible sunburn. In Hawaii, people have been shocked to find themselves badly sunburned on rainy days. Yes, the sun is that strong the closer your location to the equator.
  • Take vitamin D supplements too. Your body needs the vitamin even if it doesn't need the sun. And recent studies show that most of us don’t get enough. Vitamin D can improve your mood, prevent disease and strengthen our bones among many other benefits.
  • No matter what, DO NOT go to a tanning parlor or sit under sunlamps. Especially if you are under 30. 

I know. I sound like Debbie Downer. But I have surgical scars on my forehead and arm because I didn’t heed the warnings. And I’m lucky. Given that I’m pretty sure that I’m the product of a torrid affair between my mom and our albino milkman, I have to be super careful. But even if you have walnut-colored skin, please take caution. 

It doesn’t mean you have to live in the basement. But respect the power of the sun’s UV rays. Put on sunscreen before you go outside. Wear a hat. And have fun. 

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