Is a tan healthy? 8 out of 10 Europeans still believe so, according to a survey

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Tanning comes with many health risks that outweigh the benefits of vitamin D. BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy
  • Researchers from La Roche-Posay Laboratories and Ipsos wanted to see how widespread the belief that tanning is healthy is among different populations.
  • Despite years of campaigns warning of the dangers of tanning, people are still not overly concerned about its health risks.
  • The results of the global survey show that in many countries people still consider tanning attractive and healthy, and in Europe in particular, 8 out of 10 people think so.

Doctors have been warning people for years that there is no such thing as a “healthy tan”. Despite this, some people continue to embrace tanning as a means of promoting beauty and believe that they derive health benefits from it.

Researchers from La Roche-Posay Laboratories and Ipsos have conducted research to see how many people still believe in a “healthy” tan.

The researchers plan to present their findings at the 31st Congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (EADV) on September 9.

According to Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC), ultraviolet (UV) radiation “is a form of non-ionizing radiation emitted by the sun and man-made sources.” Man-made sources of UV radiation include tanning beds, which the CDC recommends not using at all.

When people go outside without using some form of skin protection, such as sunscreen or protective clothing, they risk damaging their skin from UV rays. The outer layer of the skin contains melanin, which according to MedlinePlus “protects the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.”

People who tan more easily have more melanin, and melanin has a reaction to prolonged exposure to UV rays that results in a tan. People with less melanin are more likely to get sunburn.

While people may think a tan looks healthy, in reality, the tan itself is a sign of UV damage to the skin. Dr. Alexa B. Kimball, Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School and President and CEO of Harvard Medical School Physicians at BIDMC, Inc., pointed this out in an interview with Medical News Today.

“[A tan] is a marker of damage and exposure that has already happened – it’s your body’s way of trying to protect itself from further injury.
— Dr. Alexa B. Kimball

The CDC reports that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed each year. More than 4 million adults in the United States are treated each year for basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma (the two most common forms of skin cancer).

Part of the “healthy tan” myth comes from the fact that the sun provides vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for bone health and even mental health, but vitamin D can be found in other sources, such as fatty fish, beef liver and fortified milk.

Even though the sun provides vitamin D, spending time in the sun without protection to tan is not healthy. However, a survey by La Roche-Posay and Ipsos shows that a worrying number of people still cling to this belief.

Researchers surveyed 17,000 people in a number of European countries, including the UK, Spain, Germany and Italy, as well as non-European countries, including the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Australia.

After collecting the survey results, the researchers compared European attitudes towards tanning with non-European attitudes.

One of the main findings was that 8 out of 10 Europeans believe that a tan is associated with beauty and attractiveness. Alarmingly, 73% of Europeans think tanning is healthy.

On the other hand, 67% of non-Europeans think a tan is attractive and 59% think it is healthy.

While more Europeans think tanning is healthier than non-Europeans, Europeans showed healthier attitudes towards skin protection. When asked about the use of protection while tanning, 66% of Europeans said they found it necessary, while 55% of non-Europeans found it necessary.

Another concerning issue the researchers found is that the majority of all respondents report that they do not protect themselves when outdoors all year round. About 44% of both groups of respondents believe that protection is only necessary on very hot days.

Finally, the researchers asked if respondents knew how to use sun protection on cloudy or overcast days, as the sun’s UV rays always penetrate clouds.

Among European respondents, 44% did not think or know if sun protection was useful on these days. Thirty-six percent of non-European respondents did not know if sunscreen was helpful.

DTM spoke to lead author Professor Thierry Passeron, who works in the Department of Dermatology at the Université Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, about the research.

“I think the most important message is to explain that we need to protect our skin all year round and not just on holidays or during certain outdoor activities.”
— Prof. Thierry Passeron

Professor Passeron noted that tanning “remains an important risk factor for skin cancers (but also skin aging)” and said that while children and fair-skinned or immunocompromised people were at higher risk , “the sun’s rays are now well demonstrated to impact all skin types.

“We have to adapt our photoprotection habits according to our skin type, the treatment we may have, but also the latitude and altitude,” said Professor Passeron.

Professor Passeron also recommended the following skin protection measures against sun damage:

  • Seek shade whenever possible
  • Wear a hat/cap and protective clothing
  • Put sunscreen covering UVB and UVA on the face and unprotected areas

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