Updated 19 December 2013

7 tanning myths

Skin cancer is a threat to everyone. And no, sunbeds and tanning lamps are not all that safe.

Tanning beds are fine, if you build a tan gradually, you don't have to protect your skin with sunscreen, and kids can cope with lots of exposure to the sun. You've probably heard all of these before. But are these statements true?

In this article, we set the record straight on common myths about the sun and your skin:

Myth: I feel so healthy and alive after tanning; the sun cannot be bad for me.
Truth: South Africa with its abundance of sun has – along with Texas and Australia – the world’s highest incidence of skin cancer. Nearly 10 000 new cases are diagnosed in SA annually.

Myth: Only people with fair hair and blue eyes are at risk.
The findings of new research on the effect of UV-rays of the sun are cause for real concern for both white- and dark skinned South Africans. Although people with light or red hair and blue eyes are at higher risk, the incidence of skin cancer is increasing among people with black and brown skins. Darker skinned West Coast fishermen develop skin cancer much earlier in life than their lighter-skinned counterparts.

Myth: I have been sun safe the past decade, so I have no risk of developing skin cancer.
Truth: It now appears that sun damage to the skin is cumulative, and often damage caused during the first 15 years of life only becomes apparent years later.

Myth: I already have a nice tan and freckles, so my skin is used to the sun and won’t damage as easily.
Truth: Benign freckles and sunspots may need only one extra exposure to the sun to become malignant.

Myth: The sun is good for my baby’s or toddler’s skin.
Truth: Children can suffer skin damage within seven minutes of sun exposure during 11 am and 3 pm.

Myth: The damaging UV rays cannot penetrate thick glass or water.
Truth: Up to 35 percent of UV-B and 85 percent of UV-A rays penetrate thick glass, and up to 50 percent of UV-B and 77 percent of UV-A rays penetrate a metre of water or wet cotton clothing.

Myth: Sunbeds and tanning lamps are safe.
Truth: They emit UV-A and are unsafe. UV-A rays can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, causing damage even before your skin turns red. UV-A rays make skin tough, wrinkled and increase the risk of skin cancer.

(Photo of bikini girl from Shutterstock)


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Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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