The sun is shining (sometimes) and spring is in the air! Classes are well underway, shorts are in style again and students are finally allowing themselves to daydream just a little bit about summer vacation. One of many people’s favorite spring downtime activities is tanning: gotta look good for bathing suit season right? There are a few popular tanning methods: the classic lay out on the football field approach; the trendy tanning bed or ‘fake bake’ strategy; and finally the more orange-y spray-on tan. The first two strategies have one big factor in common that certainly we’ve all thought about at one time or another: MELANOMA! But really what is melanoma—besides ‘cancer’— how does it happen, and how does it affect my status as a card-carrying tanning aficionado?
The first thing one needs to know when considering tanning is how the process actually works. Sunlight is made up of a variety of waves of electromagnetic radiation, which impact our bodies in different ways. The most popular sunlight wave is the ultraviolet radio wave, and this is the one responsible for tanning. Ultraviolet radiation is small enough to have the ability to go right through our hard outer coating (skin) and penetrate our cells, interacting with our actual DNA–that’s the stuff that tells our bodies how to grow. Without getting into the boring details, the interaction of UV radiation with our DNA can alter it to the point that our cells begin to divide in an abnormal, dangerous way. That’s what melanoma is, skin cells that have mutated into growing non-stop, eventually becoming tumors. When the body tans, it actually produces pigments, called melanin, that come to the surface of the skin and block out the potentially harmful UV rays in response to cellular damage.
Scientific explanations for disease can sound scary, but let’s not freak out quite yet. While the sun can alter our DNA and cause problems, we have a number of mechanisms that repair genetic damage, so actual problems caused by moderate UV radiation exposure are relatively unlikely. Additionally, sunlight can be beneficial in a number of ways. There is a reason people are happier in the summer. Sunlight is detected by the brain right through the top of the skull and helps to reset our sleeping patterns to match day length and to make us feel happy and alert. Sunlight is also a primary source of vitamin D. It converts cholesterol into vitamin D, which is pretty important for bone structure and other health maintenance, so the holing up in a dark room and playing Call of Duty all day isn’t exactly a good idea for health either.
Different skin tones absorb different amounts of ultraviolet radiation, so it’s important to think about how much you can handle before you go lay out in the sun for an extended time period. Also, one should remember that coming out of winter we are usually at our lowest melanin content, so sunlight affects us more now than in the middle of summer. No matter who you are, remember that sunburn is definite skin damage and dramatically increases the likelihood of developing melanoma, not to mention it hurts and is embarrassing. Most people probably won’t throw out our tanning lotion and stock up on sun screen anytime soon, but remember, what we do now impacts us for the rest of our lives. Be smart, people, and keep up that ASU swag.
If you have any questions about this article or have ideas for future articles, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or stop by a meeting. The next one is Wednesday April 3, 12pm in the STEM center on the third floor of Porter.