It is the end of another summer in Columbus, Ohio, and the days are still quite warm and sunny. We are all thinking about how to squeeze the last drop of this season’s golden warmth by spending as much time outside as possible. We all embrace the summer—whether this means laying by the pool or just walking to your car after work—it feels so good to have the warmth of the sun on your skin. And we all are thinking—winter is coming soon.
At my practice, Aesthetica, many of my patients now have a nice suntan. But is there such a thing as a perfect tan? We all know that we need some sunlight to make vitamin D, and we all know we should take some sun precautions, like wearing sunscreen. So how do we know how much sun is OK and how much is too much?
Can Tanning Prepare Your Skin for Sun Exposure?
Of course, on the extreme, we all know that too much sun would mean getting a sunburn. So many patients will comment that they are going to use a tanning bed before a vacation to a sunny destination. This seems to make sense at first glance. Why not? Well, the cumulative damage to the skin is something we can’t really see by looking—we can see our tan but not the damage to the cells. Really, all sun exposure is going to cause this, and so limiting the amount is the key. A little is OK, but that is it!
If you are one of the lucky few who are planning a trip to the beach, and your skin is fair, it is a real concern. A sunburn is worse than having a little tan, and the base tan can help so that you don’t burn—but the real answer is still to limit the total sun exposure.
Types of Sunscreens
There are two main types of sun protection—the barrier method and the chemical method.
The barrier method encompasses physical barriers, including fabric, but also zinc- and titanium-based sunscreens. This is the preferable type of sun protection. I can say personally that I noticed a number of years ago that my arms, knees, and calves were starting to look spotty—the tan was no longer an even shade. It was spotty, with some much darker spots and some lighter. But the skin that was usually covered by shorts or a short-sleeved top—this skin looked better—less spotty. And this was when I went all in on the physical barrier method for sun protection.
Now, I religiously wear long-sleeved shirts and capri-length bottoms when I am outdoors. This might seem crazy and too hot to wear in Ohio on a hot, humid summer day, but the fabrics are the Dri-FIT cooling type, and quite honestly, I just got used to it. It is a decision that has proven to be worth it. I can now see that the color of pigmentation on my arms and legs is not as spotty. (You can learn more about how I care for my skin in my related blog post.)These garments are available for all sports and for swimming too! And yes, I now have a long-sleeved swimsuit!
Spots Are for Cheetahs
Often, my patients of a certain age at Aesthetica come to the office, and it is like confession—they admit to enjoying the sun, maybe a little too much, and now they have uneven pigmentation as a result. Let’s be honest; we all used baby oil and iodine and baked because this was before we knew any better. And the darker the suntan, the better. If we only knew then what we know now!
So they come into the office and are interested in how to lessen their sun spots. There is a way to do this, with a prescription medicine that lightens the darker areas, but it takes time, and then if you go back in the sun, you will get rebound hyperpigmentation. If the patient wants to go down either path, they must strictly avoid the sun and wear long-sleeved shirts and leggings outside in the summer. If the patient is not able to do this, then it is best to accept the skin for what it is and just enjoy the sun in moderation.
For my younger patients, I do try to educate them on the perils of too much sun and dispel the myth of the perfect dark suntan. Many do listen and take the message to heart. However, many are still too young to be thinking 20 to 30 years ahead. Even my own children lay out to get a suntan! So, in the end, just do your best—everything in moderation.
Because of the health risk of skin cancer and the knowledge that it is cumulative sun exposure as well as the exposure we get as children and teens, there is legislation to limit tanning bed use for those under 18. It seems extreme to need legislation for something so logically harmful, but people under the age of 18 often make poor choices!
This bill would limit this type of UV damage that is so sneaky—the UVA and UVB. It is both types and the exposure we get as children that lead to skin cancer later in life. So this is an effort to encourage people to do the right thing—and not use tanning beds before 18 years old and then, after 18, to understand the risks.
On the Pulpit
Many of you who know me will know that I preach about this a bit, but I think it is part of my job to help educate my patients about the risks and long-term consequences of sun exposure. As a plastic surgeon, I know it’s not just the wrinkles and spots you should be concerned about but the real increase in skin cancers like squamous and basal cell types. I have the platform to preach and do! And since I am walking the walk, I lead by example. Shoot, I even keep my sunroof closed! I hope this blog has inspired some to join me on the narrow path, and maybe others will use moderation. If so, I have succeeded.