As temperatures soar, Minnesotans start to burn

A professor said April, May, June and July are the most dangerous months to forego sun protection.

Mary Stegmeir

The annual arrival of warm weather in Minnesota brings sun-seekers out in force to soak up the rays.

Last week, as temperatures reached the 70s, University students flocked outside to tan or simply enjoy the day.

Dr. Peter Lee, assistant professor of dermatology, said students should be aware that over-exposure to the sun is unhealthy, especially during the spring and early summer.

Lee said April, May, June and July are the most dangerous months to be outside without sun protection.

The sun’s ultraviolet, or UV, rays are very strong during this time, and most people’s skin is not yet conditioned to shield them from the sun.

“Most Minnesotans are indoors and they are not getting a lot of sun exposure,” Lee said. “When they go out in the sun in May, they have very little protection.”

As the summer continues, most people develop a tan that will help shield harmful rays. The skin also becomes thicker, Lee said.

“Every spring (Minnesotans) get reinitiated to UV rays and to more sun damage,” he said.

Lee also said although a tan can help prevent sunburns, the idea of a “healthy bronze” skin tone is a myth.

“Tanning is a sign of injury to your skin,” he said. “It’s your body’s way to protect itself.”

Tans, along with sunburns, can cause premature skin aging and might also increase an individual’s risk for developing skin cancer, Lee said.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Experts believe the groundwork for the disease is laid years before the cancer appears.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 80 percent of a person’s sun damage occurs before he or she is 18 years old.

But Lee said protection from the sun is important at any age.

“The thought is that sunburns prior to age 18 are the most crucial,” he said. “I don’t think that is 100 percent true.”

“In my opinion, any sun exposure at any time in your life is dangerous,” he said, adding both outdoor and indoor tanning can be harmful.

The federal government recognizes both tanning methods as potential health hazards.

The Department of Health and Human Services Report on Carcinogens, released in December 2002, lists broad-spectrum ultraviolet radiation, solar radiation and exposure to sun beds and sunlamps as carcinogenic.

These forms of radiation are listed as “known” causes of cancer in humans, along with other scientifically proven toxins such as tobacco and mustard gas.

This classification indicates a “causal relationship” between exposure to the substances and the development of cancer.

Lee said this new characterization should serve as a wake-up call for people who believe tanning is healthy.

“You are definitely putting yourself at risk,” he said.

Tanning industry officials disagree. Joseph Levy, vice president of communications and development at the International Smart Tan Network, said the report on carcinogens is misleading.

He said most people are not exposed enough to UV rays to cause cancer.

“(UV radiation’s) inclusion was more motivated by politics than science,” Levy said. “It was overstated to get people to change their behavior.”

Levy said sunburns, not tans, are unhealthy.

“Your body is intended to tan,” he said. “You need to get UV light.”

Levy said tanning is a natural way to protect the skin from sunburns. Indoor and outdoor tanning are part of a healthy lifestyle, he added.

“The indoor tanning industry does not exist to burn people,” he said. “The golden rule of smart tanning is don’t ever burn.”

When tanning is done correctly the benefits of the sun are maximized and the health risks are minimized, Levy said.

UV rays provide the body with vitamin D, which helps maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. The radiation is also used in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that accompanies season changes.

But dermatologists such as Lee say tanning does more harm than good and increases an individual’s chances of developing skin cancer.

Other risk factors for skin cancer include fair skin, a pattern of severe burns and a family history of skin cancer.

Limiting sun exposure by regularly using sunscreen might decrease a person’s skin cancer risk level.

Lee said sunscreens with a sun protection factor of 15 or greater prevent skin damage. Products with the active ingredients titanium, zinc or parsol are the most effective because they form a physical block that keeps out the rays.

First-year student Sonya Luhm said she does not use sunscreen unless she plans to be outside for a long time. Like many college students, she spends her days going from class to class and does not spend extended periods of time outside.

“I don’t worry about it,” she said. “If I was outside on a more regular basis I probably would worry about it more.”

Luhm said most of the people who sprawl out on the mall in the spring are working on schoolwork, not their tans.

“A handful of people are outside just to tan,” she said. “But I think most people are multi-tasking.”

David Hiti was also drawn outside by last week’s sunny skies.

The sophomore said most college students do not worry about overexposure to the sun.

“I don’t think most people pay attention to it,” Hiti said. “Melanoma is so far off people probably don’t think about it that much.”

Mary Stegmeir welcomes comments at [email protected]