Summer is so close; you can almost taste the $1 Frozen Coke from McDonald’s. The beach is beckoning. We have all spent months indoors, hibernating in warm coats and black boots, but now it’s time to switch into tee shirts and shorts. Also on the horizon? The societal pressure to get a tan.
There is a whole spectrum of reasons why people seek out a tan—to fit in, to accentuate, to model the people they see in the media, to socialise—but the ugly reality is that sun tanning puts people at risk of skin cancer.
New Zealand has the highest melanoma incidence rate in the world. More than 350 Kiwi die every year because of melanoma, and it doesn’t only affect people in high risk categories. Māori and Pacific Islanders have a lesser incidence rate, but they can often develop thicker moles which are more serious to treat.
Risk factors that increase danger include:
- higher sun exposure (New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders automatically belong to this category)
- skin that burns easily
- using sunbeds
- having many/larger moles
- family or personal history of melanoma
- fair skin
- red, blonde or fair hair.
Melanoma can develop due to uncontrolled growth of the skin’s pigment cells (called melanocytes), which produce melanin to help protect the body from ultraviolet (UV) rays. One damaged skin cell is all it takes. The risk of sunburn is not just short-term pain. Whether it covers a patch of skin or every inch of your back, sunburn increases your likelihood of developing melanoma.
Removing melanoma is not like extracting a troublesome tooth. If not caught early, the cancer becomes harder to treat as it spreads. You might require surgery, radiotherapy or immunotherapy. Sometimes, body parts must be amputated. The process can impact your future ability to start a family. Even if the cancer is successfully removed, regular check-ups will be part of your ongoing life.
Is a summer tan—which will stay with you for three months, maybe four—worth a life-altering illness which may live in your body forever?
Best of Both Worlds
It is not a bad thing to want a tanned appearance.
For sure, consider whether your only motivation is because people around you and in the media say you should aspire to tanned skin. In a consumer society, the world gets a kick out of tearing into the things about you that don’t need to be fixed—your clothes, your habits, your personality—and appearances have always been their favourite target. Skin colours are not a fashion trend you need to follow; they are part of your DNA, and they are all beautiful.
A tan is not something you need.
But if it makes you feel genuinely good about yourself, the same way that trying out a new hair colour over summer gives you a mental boost, then you can still adopt a bronzed look without putting yourself in cancer danger.
Supermarkets, department stores, pharmacies, salons … there are so many places to buy self-tanning products (or have tan applied by a professional). Yes, self-application might take a bit of practise. Yes, it will cost money. But we all weigh up cost versus want for things like hairdressers, make up, protein powders, beauty procedures and gym memberships. If it’s not worth your money, it’s not worth bargaining your health.
And make no mistake—every moment you spend in the sun without sunscreen is bargaining your health at terrible odds.
Professionals are increasingly encouraging young people—especially those who spend lengthy time in the sun—to get skin checks. But sunscreen is the most important weapon you can brandish against UV, especially given that melanoma is a largely preventable form of cancer.
The only excuse to not wear sunscreen is if you are a baby under the age of 6 months. It’s a fair assumption that if you are reading this, you do not fall into this category.
Do your research and read the label of your sunscreen carefully before blindly slip-slop-slapping. Price does not necessarily indicate quality. Look for a sunscreen which is at least SPF30+, broad spectrum and water resistant, with the AS/NZS 2604 standard on the label.
FYI, SPF stands for ‘Sun Protection Factor’ (the higher the SPF number, the more UV radiation is filtered out), while broad spectrum means the sunscreen filters out both skin UVA and UVB radiation. Cancer Society NZ recommends applying sunscreen twenty minutes before sun exposure, and to reapply every two hours (more frequently if you are in the water or sweating).
Your skin, as your body’s largest organ, is truly incredible—protect it. Be smart about your sun exposure: wear a hat, sunglasses, rashie or tee shirt and seek shade in peak UV times. Remember, sunscreen isn’t only for December to February. There are plenty of websites and apps where you can check the daily temperature, UV exposure and what hours to watch out for.
You will never reflect on your life and say, ‘You know what, I wish I never wore all that sunscreen’.
But if you are diagnosed with melanoma because you spent too much time chasing a tan without being sun smart, you are sure to regret it.
Podacst: ‘Natalie Fornasier’, Shameless
Healthy Summer Glow? Five Tanning Myths:
MYTH #1: Tanning beds are a safe way to tan. Nope, tanning beds emit the same, harmful UV rays and can also cause premature aging.
MYTH #2: A base tan will protect me from future sunburn. Tanning is actually a sign of skin damage; it cannot protect you from the sun.
MYTH #3: Tanning is a great vitamin D source. We are exposed to enough vitamin D from the sun in our general day. Besides, you can pick up extra nutrients in your diet.
MYTH #4: My tanning oil has SPF—I can tan and stay protected. Products which promise you can suntan while protecting yourself from UV are misleading and dangerous.
MYTH #5: People who can tan without burning, or have darker skin, don’t need sunscreen. Yeah, nah—all sun exposure is a cancer risk. Although the extra melanin in darker skin can offer limited protection, it does not block UV rays.