Tim Turnham: Hi I am Tim Turnham, Executive Director of the Melanoma Research Foundation. And today I want to talk about tanning, and specifically address the question what is a tan?
We all know what tans looks like. It's part of our culture. We see it everyday. The fact is however, a tan occurs when damage is done to the DNA of skin cells. UV radiation in the form of sunlight or lamps from a tanning bed, strike the skin and that UV radiation is very harmful to the genetic material of the skin cells. It causes damage to the DNA. This is clearly not a good thing. So the body sends out an emergency signal, an SOS if you will. That signal is received by other cells in the skin that are called Melanocytes. Those cells have the ability to generate pigment. When they receive this emergency signal from the skin cells, they cause pigment to migrate into those skin cells and protect the nucleus of the cells. So they form actually like a little umbrella over the nucleus of the cell directly blocking the UV light. The problem is by that time the damage is already done. The signal doesn't even go out and less genetic damage has occurred. So a tan always is a sign that we are doing to the genetic material of our skin. This is not good clearly. It can cause all kinds of problems, sometimes it just means that the cells die. Sometimes the DNA is able to repair itself but sometimes it isn't. And the DNA becomes mutated and changes and those grow out of control and we have skin cancer or in the worst case Melanoma. The other part about the science of tanning or what causes a tan is at the same time that the signal goes out to the Melanocytes, the body also receives a boost of endorphins much like what we talk about with a runner's high, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel positive. But there are also an Opioid family just like cocaine and heroine. And they are released in small quantities and the body becomes dependent on this. Studies have shown that college students who tan frequently through tanning salons find it very, very difficult to stop tanning even though they know that, that UV radiation is hurting their skin. So the bottom line is, a tan is always a sign that something unhealthy is happening. And tanning can be addictive. Clinicians are seeing more and more cases of Melanoma in young women. In fact, Melanoma which is the deadliest form of skin cancer is currently the number one Cancer diagnosis for women in their upper twenty's. This will result in more and more people losing their life at an early age.
So yes there is no such thing as a healthy tan. The positive news is this, take care of your skin, avoid UV radiation and you have a better chance of living longer and better.