Health & Wellness

'The sun is not your friend': Woman's painful tan warning goes viral

Margaret Murphy frets that the world is seeing her at her worst, but that’s exactly the point of her warning about the dangers of tanning.

The 45-year-old mom, who lives in Dublin, Ireland, is chronicling her experience with actinic keratoses — precancerous lesions that form when the skin is damaged by ultraviolet rays from the sun or indoor tanning — with photos showing the painful effects of treatment on her face.

“I thought maybe somebody will pay attention if I do it this way,” Murphy told TODAY. “The sun is not your friend.”

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Courtesy Margaret Murphy
Margaret Murphy was diagnosed with actinic keratoses after years of sun tanning.

Murphy spent more than a decade living on Crete and tanning herself to "look good," she writes on her Facebook page. She also spent summers “doing sunbeds” to get a tan in the less-sunny Irish climate. Sunscreen was not a priority.

Years ago, she noticed a little crusty, scaly patch on her forehead; then more patches appeared. When a dermatologist diagnosed actinic keratoses, she began treatment with Efudix cream.

Also known as topical fluorouracil, the cream stops the rapid growth of the lesions, said Dr. Julie Karen, a board certified dermatologist in New York and an assistant clinical professor at NYU Langone Medical Center.

“If you apply it to normal skin without sun damage, there should be minimal to no reaction,” Karen noted. “When applied to extensively damaged skin, the reaction is avid or exuberant, such as this woman is demonstrating.”

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Courtesy Margaret Murphy
As part of her treatment, Murphy used a cream that can cause itching, redness, peeling and swelling.

Many people limit treatment to smaller areas because it can be difficult to endure such extensive inflammation, but Murphy “is brave and will have an excellent response as a result,” Karen said.

Murphy described her treatment this way: “I'd rather give birth five times than do this again.” The cream left her face fiery red, raw, swollen, peeling and maddeningly itchy. Her 13-year-old daughter suggested she start the Facebook page to show the consequences of too much sun.

Actinic keratoses are a very common precancerous condition of the skin, Karen noted. The lesions are most commonly the result of chronic cumulative exposure to UV radiation.

They look like pink or red rough areas with a classically "gritty" feeling to them. When neglected, the lesions can become non-melanoma skin cancer — squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma, she added. A single lesion can be scraped off or frozen using liquid nitrogen, but people with many lesions need broader treatment.

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Courtesy Margaret Murphy
"The doctor said I would hate him by the end of the course," Murphy said.

Murphy announced on Tuesday that after 24 days, the treatment has done its job and her doctor has instructed her to stop using the cream.

Once the inflammation subsides, which will take several weeks, her skin will be smoother, less blotchy and, most importantly, healthier, Karen said.

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