4 Myths About Sun Damage in Your College Years

May 9, 2017

Whether studying outdoors in a sunny quadrangle, socializing at a crawfish boil at the fraternity house, or playing flag football with the intramural team, college is a time for exploring lots of new activities. And, especially in the south, plenty of those activities are outdoors.

While college students may not be thinking about protecting their skin, it’s important for people in their early 20s to consider how to protect themselves against sun damage that could have lasting effects later in life. Sun damage is cumulative over a person’s lifetime, and life expectancy is higher than it’s ever been before — so it’s never too early to begin making healthy skin choices to prevent melanoma and other skin cancers as you age.

In honor of May being National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve compiled 4 common myths about sun exposure during your college years. Read on to find out if your college habits might be putting you at risk during your golden years.

Myth #1: Tanning Beds Are Safe

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “people who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent.” But despite the well-documented risks associated with ultraviolet radiation, 12% of colleges still have tanning beds on campus.

During college, there is immense pressure to be as beautiful as possible, particularly for young women who are living on their own for the first time. Greek life, endless social events, and body image issues all combine to make the immediate benefits of tanning seem worthwhile, particularly when the risk of skin cancer is in the distant future.

Although most college-aged people are aware that tanning beds are dangerous, many don’t understand the amount of risk they take on with just one tanning session. A recent study found that there are more cases of skin cancer due to indoor tanning — almost 420,000 a year — than there are cases of lung cancer due to smoking. The message is clear: If you want a sun-kissed glow, use sunless tanners or spray tan. Or, choose to embrace the beauty of your natural skin tone!

Myth #2: Premature Aging is Caused by Genetics

You may have your father’s eyes and your mother’s nose, but there’s no need to have your grandfather’s skin. We will all lose some skin tone and elasticity as we age, but sun damage is the biggest cause of premature skin aging. All exposure to the harmful ultraviolet radiation in sunlight contributes to the aging of your skin, breaking down collagen and elastin and causing wrinkles, discoloration and a leathery texture.

Multiple studies have shown that sun exposure is responsible for more than 80% of skin’s aging appearance, that a 2% increase in skin damage can age a face by 3 years, and that reducing your cumulative sun exposure is the single most significant way to control your risk of skin cancer.

Therefore, reducing your time in the sun, and protecting your skin with sunscreen, are by far the most effective ways to prevent premature aging of your skin. Every moment of exposure to UV radiation counts, so ensuring that your skin is protected during college and in your 20s will have a lasting impact on your skin later in life.

Myth #3: A Base Tan Will Protect You

There is no such thing as a safe tan. Although it seems logical that getting a base tan at the start of swimsuit season will help protect you from sunburn, the truth is that this makes no difference to the cumulative effect of ultraviolet radiation on your skin.

As Scientific American explains, “a base tan affords almost no protection against future ultraviolet exposure. In fact, it actually puts otherwise pale people at risk of developing skin cancers.” A natural base tan increases your sun protection by SPF 2 or 3, which is essentially meaningless. A base tan from indoor tanning is even worse, affording protection of less than SPF 1.5, while doctors recommend using SPF 30 on a daily basis.

Even more troubling, the false reassurance of a base tan can cause more dangerous behavior in people in their 20s, as they may stay out in the sun longer, or reapply sunscreen less frequently, than people without a base tan.

Myth #4: Sun Overexposure Is Harmless

The World Health Organization has determined that ultraviolet radiation is a carcinogen. In other words, sun exposure causes skin cancer, period.

In 1900, the average life expectancy of a person in the Americas was just 41 years. Now it’s 77. That’s an extra 36 years, almost doubling the time we have to live, laugh, love — and accumulate UV radiation exposure.

Because sun damage is cumulative, simply living longer dramatically increases your risk of skin cancer. And while the various forms of skin cancer have a very low mortality rate (meaning that skin cancer is not as life-threatening as some other cancers), anyone who has gone through it can tell you that it’s a traumatic and frightening experience.

So when the sunny outdoors beckons, be responsible. Cover up, wear sunscreen, and enjoy yourself — now, and for many, many years to come!

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