Dancing With Your Life
By Timothy S. Brown, M.D.

Someone who strives for peak physical fitness through intense workouts, unwavering dedication, and a strict diet, surely would recognize how tanning is directly contradictory to this philosophy of good health.

It seems that the dancers are not alone in their misunderstanding of tanning bed risks. Last year over 28,000,000 Americans visited tanning salons. The long term effects of a tanning include increased skin cancer risk and increased photodamage, which manifests as premature wrinkling, unsightly sunspots, as well as an increased number of moles.

People in the tanning bed industry often allege that the "rays" from their beds are safer than being in the sun. There are two types of damaging ultraviolet rays, UVB and UVA, which are distinguished by the wavelength of light that is given off. Tanning beds predominately emit UVA type light, while the light from the sun falls more in the UVB spectrum.

Regardless of what the tanning industry would like people to believe, both wavelengths of light are harmful, carcinogenic, and the UVA light (from tanning beds) seems to be more effective at causing premature aging of the skin. In fact, UVA rays penetrate glass unlike UVB light.

Ultraviolet light causes measurable damage to the skin cells by affecting the cell's important building blocks called DNA. Multiple hits of this damage over time can cause a malignant transformation at the cellular level resulting in skin cancer.

The current risk for an American to develop a skin cancer is 1 in 5. In 2006 over 1.35 million skin cancers were diagnosed in the United States. This is more than all other cancers combined!

Because my subspecialty training is in the removal of skin cancers, this alarming trend hits close to home. Unfortunately, I am seeing younger and younger patients walk into my office with a skin cancer. What's even more striking is that many of these young patients are developing the most deadly form of skin cancer called melanoma. For every four people who are diagnosed with melanoma, one in four are under the age of 40.

The big three risk factors for developing skin cancers include a family history of skin cancer, excessive exposure to the sun, and the use of tanning beds. The younger the patient is at the time of presentation, the more likely tanning was a factor in the development of their cancer.

When I educate my patients about the harmful affects of tanning, I am always struck by the amount of misinformation that is out there about this subject. Let's separate myth from fact.

Myth: Tanning bed rays are "safe" because they are giving one a base tan that protects against sunburns.

Fact: Ultraviolet radiation is a known carcinogen as well as an immunosuppressive agent. This statement means that ultraviolet rays, whether received from the sun or from a tanning bed, can increase your risk of cancer as well as decrease the efficacy of your immune system.

Myth: You do not get any rays when you use sunscreen or sunblock.

Fact: Even when you use a sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 you will get 3-5% penetration of the rays. So it is important to avoid spending hours in the sun especially at peak hours during the day and to seek shade and wear sunprotective clothing in addition to wearing sunscreens.

Myth: Tanning beds promote health by boosting the body's levels of Vitamin D, which you may not be getting enough of otherwise.

Fact: If you were to follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Dermatology and wear a sunscreen with at least a SPF of 15 everyday you would still get more than adequate levels of vitamin D through incidental exposures from the sun in your activities of daily living.

Ballroom dancing is a sport in which you want to look your best and have a great time. If you prefer the look of tanned skin, there are still ways to get this without risking your health baking in the sun or going to the tanning bed. There are numerous safe and effective self-tanners as well as spray-tans that can be purchased at the same salon that sell visits on their tanning beds.

Over the years, I have taken an informal poll of my skin cancer patients, asking them this question: Was the tanning worth what you are having to go through now?

Not surprisingly, almost every person answers with a resounding no!

Don't be one of the statistics -- protect yourself starting today and reap the rewards of healthy, younger-looking, cancer-free skin.

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