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Despite decades of warning about the hazards of sun exposure, it’s evident that beaches, poolside patios and tanning salons continue to be crowded with people seeking tanned skin. So it’s no surprise that skin cancer cases also continue to climb.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, rates of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) have doubled since 1982, and skin cancer is now the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States.
“Too many people still think that getting a little extra color is okay, as long as they don’t burn,” says Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist in private practice in Montclair, N.J. “But anytime skin gets darker, it’s getting damaged.”
That’s because when ultraviolet (UV) light hits unprotected skin, the skin responds by increasing production of melanocytes, the compounds that give skin its pigment. “A tan is your skin’s way of putting out an SOS,” says Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.
“I hear from some of my African American patients that they are deciding to embrace their heritage and want darker skin,” says Downie, “so they are going in the sun or to tanning beds to get darker.” But what many people of color don’t realize is that they aren’t immune to skin damage or skin cancer.
While it’s true that lighter skin can accrue more damage more quickly, no skin tone provides full protection from UV rays. And even though skin cancer is rarer in people with darker skin than it is in Caucasians, African Americans and Hispanics both have high mortality rates if they do develop the disease.
A 2017 analysis published in the journal Medicine found that African Americans are 1.5 times as likely to die of melanoma as are Caucasians. The reasons? Many people of color (and sometimes even their doctors) don’t think they’re vulnerable to skin cancer; and skin cancer in people of color also often shows up in unexpected places (such as the bottoms of the feet and palms of the hands). As a result, early warning signs can go unnoticed and skin cancer isn’t diagnosed until a later stage, when the disease is more difficult to treat.
Tanning beds and bulbs emit UVA and UVB rays — just as the sun does. And even though they come from an artificial light source, these rays can damage your skin — again, just as the sun does.
The rays from some indoor tanning beds may even be stronger than those from the sun, Gohara says.
That’s why the Department of Health and Human Services includes tanning beds on its list of known carcinogens — right up there with asbestos and tobacco. Indoor tanning is estimated to cause more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States annually.
In fact, according to the AAD, even one indoor tanning session can increase your risk of melanoma by 20 percent.
The good news is that with the right protection you can safely spend time in the sun — and then get your “tan” from a bottle.
“If you want to spend time outside, protect your skin,” says Downie. That means using a broad-spectrum sunscreen labeled SPF 40 or higher, and reapplying it at least every two hours. Hats, sun-protective clothing and umbrellas can help, too.
Self-tanning products are safe and generally don’t cause skin irritation.
And when it comes to faking a glow, self-tanner has come a long way since the days when it left behind a streaky, cheese-puff-colored mess that fooled no one. “People of all skin tones can definitely get a reasonably real-looking tan if they use the right product,” says Anna Stankiewicz, a spray tanning specialist at Louise O’Connor Salon in New York City.
To make your “tan” look as natural as possible, Stankiewicz suggests selecting a product that’s not too dark. “Look for one that’s close to your natural skin color,” she says. (Many products are labeled “fair” or “light,” “medium” and “dark.”)
Lotions designed to darken skin gradually are basically self-tanner diluted with moisturizer. “So when you pick those, it’s about how fast you want to see the color,” says Stankiewicz. “A lighter one will take a few days to show up, while a darker formula will give noticeable color in a day.”
Follow her other tips for a foolproof fake tan:
If you are planning to shave or wax, do it before you apply tanner.
Exfoliate with a non-oily scrub before applying tanner. “Oil-based products leave a residue behind, and that barrier means your tan can get streaky and not last as long,” says Stankiewicz.
The skin in such areas as the feet, ankles, elbows, knees and hands is drier and absorbs more color. Use lotion on those spots first for more-even application, and use a lighter touch when applying tanner to those areas.
Start with a small amount and add more if you need it, building up your color gradually.
Wash your hands with soap after you finish applying self-tanner, or your palms will turn unnaturally dark.
If you catch a mistake (such as a streak or a splotch) within three hours of application, you can try to exfoliate it away. “Use lemon juice and baking soda on a wet towel and rub in a circular motion,” says Stankiewicz.
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