I know that overexposure to the sun can lead to skin cancer. This coming summer, I will be working at a summer camp and will be outdoors for most of the day. I know that people with dark pigmentation have a greater resistance to skin cancer. Is it a good idea to get a base tan now as protection during the summer?
It’s true that darker pigmentation means one is less likely to develop skin cancer; however, “pigmentation” refers to one’s natural coloring, not tanning by exposure to the sun. Tanning — and, even more so, burning — always damages the skin. It leads to drying, wrinkling, a leather-like consistency and, sometimes, one of the skin cancers. This damage is cumulative, meaning that tanning or burning will add up, year after year, to increase the damage.
There are basically three kinds of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma. Each is named for the type of cell that becomes malignant. All are related to sun exposure, although melanoma can be hereditary.
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers occur most commonly on the exposed areas of skin where sunburn and windburn are most likely: the forehead, face, ears, and backs of the hands are common sites. These cancers are easily treated if caught early, although treatment may leave a scar.
Melanomas are much more dangerous, since they can metastasize (spread) widely; and there is no effective treatment at present for such metastases. Some new immunologic treatments appear to be promising for metastatic melanoma. Unlike other cancers, they are common on areas of the body that are not generally tanned or burned, such as the back, thighs or feet.
It is now thought that sunburns early in life begin a widespread process in the skin which, in a susceptible individual, will result in a melanoma. Fair-haired, blue-eyed people are most at risk. Dark-skinned populations have a much lower rate of disease — perhaps one-tenth that of lighter-skinned people. Those who spend their childhood in darker northern countries, and then migrate to countries near the equator, have a lower incidence of melanoma than people of similar complexion who grew up close to the equator.
Most dermatologists are appalled by the modern delight in tanning. They would prefer that we hearken back to the Victorian era, when it was fashionable to cover up and carry a parasol to maintain a pale complexion. Although they haven’t been around long enough to say for sure, it’s likely that tanning salons will prove to be just as damaging as the natural thing. My dermatologist colleagues believe that everyone should wear sunscreen on exposed skin — even in the winter. So my answer to your question is: Don’t go for an early tan. Use a sunscreen rated greater than 15.