Teens, if you want great skin now -- and 10 years from now -- then you need to shun the sun. Sure, you may think, "bronze is beautiful," but research shows just the opposite: The sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays make skin look old and wrinkled years before it should and can lead to skin cancer, even in teens. Yet not only is a tan harmful, one study shows it's "addictive," too.
In an interview with WebMD, Seattle-based dermatologist Robin Hornung, MD, talks about her new study on college students and tans. Dr. Hornung says that tanning becomes like an addiction. Students who get their tans indoors -- under a sun lamp -- are more likely to be addicted to tanning than those who go outside to get a tan. "Those who indoor-tan are more apt to get addictive habits such as drinking and smoking," says Dr. Hornung.
It's thought that tanning is addictive because the body gives off endorphins, "feel-good" hormones, when it's in UV light. Tanning may also be addictive because being tan is "cool." Hornung says that teens feel good when they have a tan, and so they want to do it again ... and again. Of course, the addictive factor may be a mix of these reasons, and Hornung said more research is needed to be sure.
Teen Skin and Sun Damage
"What does not need more research," says Hornung, "is how tanning affects your skin. The UV light rays from the sun and from sunlamps damage the skin."
Hornung says, "In small amounts, the sun is not usually a problem. Yet after a lot of tanning, the skin gets brown spots and early wrinkles. The UV rays also lead to early skin cancer in young adults."
Even a "short-term" tan is bad for your health. Furthermore, Hornung says that UV rays can hurt your eyes. Even in winter, the sun can cause snow blindness or burn the eyes so badly you must be hospitalized. She also warns that some acne creams like Renova and Retin-A make the skin more sensitive to the sun, and the skin will burn after just a short time outside.
No Teen Wants Old Skin
Prevent wrinkles now? More than 80% of the signs of skin aging -- the lines and wrinkles you see in your parents -- are the result of the tans they had as teens before the age of 18. Chemist Ben Kaminsky, author of the skin-care guide Beyond Botox, knows all about helping skin of all ages look its best. As a chemist, Kaminsky makes lotions and creams for teens and adults that help to cleanse, repair, nourish and protect the skin.
"Sunscreens are the mainstay of sunburn prevention," says Kaminsky, "and many factors influence the effectiveness of a sunscreen, including your skin type, when you put on the product, the amount you apply, and the time of day you go out -- early, midday or late in the day. The sunscreen's value will also depend on the thickness of the skin and the type of skin -- fair, olive, or black skin."
Kaminsky says to put on sunscreen at least 20 minutes before you go out into the sun. Put it on once more every 2 hours, especially after swimming or sweating.
Catch Rays ... But Just a Few
It's OK to get some sun to give yourself ample vitamin D, which works to build strong bones and boost your immune system to keep you well. That said, milk and other foods are fortified with vitamin D, so you don't need much time in the sun to fill your body's needs.
How much time in the sun is healthy? "It's hard to tell how much sun you really need," says Dr. Hornung, "Ten to 15 minutes of sun a few times a week is plenty."
What about slowly building a "base tan," to protect your skin from long days at the beach? Dr. Hornung says it won't protect your skin. "Even if you want to build a base tan before hitting the beach," she says, "the SPF protection value of the base tan is small. It's not the best way to guard against a future burn."
Also, whether you get your tan slowly as a base tan or all in one week, the studies show that tanned skin increases the risk of sun damage.
Leave the Burn Behind
The bottom line: Avoid the sun to protect your skin from skin cancer and premature aging. Cover up with a hat and shirt, wear sunglasses, stay out of the midday sun, and use sunscreen, which works pretty well. Hornung says, "Even if you could find sunscreen with an SPF of 100, it would not shield your skin well enough. The UV rays still go right into the skin."
While Dr. Hornung hopes that teens will soon think pale skin looks good, there is a "safe" way to look tan and have great skin for life: the spray-on tan. "The spray-on tan is a good option," Hornung says. "Each time you're in UV light, you harm your DNA. While the body usually repairs the DNA, why risk hurting your skin when you can spray-on a tan?"
Whether you shun the sun this year or not, you still need to be aware of skin changes. If you have moles, light hair and fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, or years of sun exposure, talk to your doctor about your risk of skin cancer. With early detection and treatment, most cases of skin cancer are curable.