While most people probably know it's not safe to get a sunburn, many may not realize that tanning also increases the risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging.
A new survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) found a sharp rise in both tanning and number of sunburns last year, compared to 2020. And as the summer season begins, the AAD is encouraging people to protect themselves.
"A tan is your body's response to injury," said Dr. Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, a Dallas-based dermatologist.
"When you tan, you are intentionally putting your health at risk," she said in an academy news release. "If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it."
The AAD recommends seeking shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest. Seek shade if your shadow appears shorter than you are, Houshmand advised.
Wear sun-protective clothing, such as a lightweight long-sleeved shirt and pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection. Clothes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) on the label provide more protection.
Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all exposed skin. Broad-spectrum sunscreen provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
About 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and 197,700 new cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, are expected to be diagnosed in the United States this year, according to AAD.
In this recent survey, 63% of respondents reported getting a suntan last year, up from 54% in 2020. About 33% were sunburned in 2021, compared to 25% in 2020.
One blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person's risk of developing melanoma.
About 28% of sunburned survey respondents said their burn was bad enough that their clothes felt uncomfortable. Top places for getting burns were the face, arms, shoulders and neck.
And nearly half of respondents believed one or more tanning myths, the survey found. About 22% wrongly said a base tan will prevent a sunburn and 18% said it would decrease the skin cancer risk. One in 5 said they thought tanning was safe as long as they didn't burn and 13% thought tanning was healthy.
About 53% said people with tanned skin look healthier.
About 39% of respondents were unaware of one or more sunburn risks. Among those: that it is possible to get sunburned on a cloudy day or through a car window; that people with dark skin can burn, and that sunburns increase skin cancer risk.
"This increase in sunburns is very concerning," Houshmand said. "Both tanning and sunburning damage your skin. The more you tan and sunburn, the more this damage builds up over time, increasing your risk of premature skin aging, including age spots, sagging and wrinkling, and skin cancer."