Q: Summer is finally here and I want to get some color. Will just a bit hurt?
A: Your perception that you look better or even healthier with a tan is shared by many. A study published in January found that 61 percent of women and 69 percent of men age 18 and older feel exactly the same way. Not only that, but those who had the highest household incomes were even more likely to agree that a tan looks good (73 percent!). The survey was conducted by telephone among over 1,000 adults in the United States by the Opinion Research Corporation in collaboration with the American Academy of Dermatology.
I know you’re just trying to get “some color” in your skin, but know that even the slightest change in pigment is indicative of skin cell injury. In fact, the sun, not time, is your skin’s greatest enemy. Over 80 percent of the changes that announce your age — or, worse yet, “older age” — are due to a process known as photoaging. The ultraviolet B (UVB) rays in the sun, which are short-spectrum rays, quickly cause superficial (and immediately noticeable) damage to the skin by irritating the melanocytes, or pigment cells, in the bottom layer of your outer skin. These irritated cells then protest by producing more pigment and hence the change in color you see on the surface.
The greater the irritation and tissue devastation, the redder the color is (i.e. sunburn). But even if you don’t burn, know that you have caused harm. That harm includes inhibition of the skin’s immune system and, as we’ve all been told numerous times, an increased likelihood of potential deadly skin cancers, the malignant melanomas which now occur in one out of every 90 Americans.
But let me continue on (literally) another wavelength: ultraviolet A (UVA) rays are longer and penetrate deeper than UVB rays. Most unfortunately, these rays can reach your skin through window glass, clouds, smog and even some sunscreens. In our quest to look brown and healthy we are also offered these rays (at a price) in those ubiquitous tanning salons, whose ads should read, “Look browner now and prunier later.”
In the photoaging process, fine wrinkles, followed by coarse wrinkles, occur as a result of UV stimulation of hydrogen peroxide, which triggers a breakdown of collagen and damages the structural integrity of skin. The UV rays also impair stimulation of good collagen and stop the skin’s self-repair processes and ability to remain taut and “youthful.” A 1997 article in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine showed that a surprisingly small amount of sun exposure can lead to this type of premature skin aging.
So, clearly, sun-darkened skin tones are not healthy, and in addition to concerns about cancer, most women should remember that we’d like our face, chest, arms and legs to continue having the same color and texture that we see in our less marked, wrinkled and tanned rear ends and inner arms.
If you MUST get color, use one of the self-tanning creams or sprays you’ll find in the sunscreen section of your pharmacy. These contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that interacts with proteins in the cells in your outer skin layer and stains them brown — for a limited time.
Meanwhile, on a daily basis, even when you’re not planning to be out in the sun, apply sunscreen to your face, neck and hands (those UVA rays can even find you in your car). It should contain the ingredients zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and Parsol 1789 (or another ingredient approved for broad-spectrum protection), and it should have a minimum SPF rating of 15. If you are outdoors and participating in high-sun activities, aside from covering up, I suggest a sunscreen with SPF 30 or more. And even if it says “waterproof” or “sweatproof” on the label, you should probably still reapply every 60 to 90 minutes.
Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: This summer, cover up when out in the sun, and whenever possible wear sun-protective clothing that blocks UV radiation (you can find specific UV-safe clothing on the Internet). Always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen when you venture outdoors, or into your “window-protected” car, come rain or shine.
Dr. Judith Reichman, the “Today” show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.