Casper or George?
August 6, 2006 9:25 PM   Subscribe

Are there *any* parts of the body that can be safely tanned without really having to worry about skin cancer?

I've started wearing sunscreen on my face, ears, and the back of my neck every day now, but would like to (if it's safe) be tan from the chin down. But I thought I heard somewhere that it's not safe to tan the torso either. 35/w/m living in Phoenix who is just now getting with the program, after years of sun and burns.
posted by BruceL to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No. Skin cancer can happen anywhere. Use sunscreen.
posted by 6:1 at 9:32 PM on August 6, 2006

What he said. Go for the sunless tanners if you really must have a tan, they work quite well nowadays.

I have a rare-ish skin disease and while it isn't very bad I have had visits to the spray-on-tan booth prescribed to me. I've only done it a few times but it worked surprisingly well and I suppose if staying tan is important to you it would be worth it.

Skin cancer, on the other hand, is not.
posted by jckll at 9:36 PM on August 6, 2006

Short answer: no. Why would it be any safer to tan your torso than your face?

If you desperately want to look tanned, use fake tan. If it's not important enough to do that, then it's probably not important enough to risk skin cancer over anyway.

On preview: what cklennon said.
posted by jacalata at 9:36 PM on August 6, 2006

Skin is skin is skin. There's no "safe" spot. That being said, there are plenty of unsafe spots where cancer is mostly likely, because they're the spots most likely to get sun. You should sunscreen everywhere, and especially these places -- face, nose, back of neck, back, upper shoulders, lower arms, lower legs.

would like to ... be tan from the chin down

Go get yourself some tan in a bottle.

just now getting with the program, after years of sun and burns.

And get thee to a dermatologist for a check-up.
posted by frogan at 9:38 PM on August 6, 2006

Tanned skin contains more UV-blocking melanin. In addition to making you look tanned, melanin is a chemical that blocks cancer-causing UV, so that the DNA or genetic material in your skin cells receives less damage.

Untanned skin, e.g. your torso, contains much less melanin. Sun exposure to untanned skin will be more likely to result in a carcinogenic damage event, all else the same.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:44 PM on August 6, 2006

But sun exposure supresses your immune system in the first place, making you more susceptible to the cancer. A large majority of melanoma occurs on non-exposed skin. The link between sun exposure and melanoma is nowhere near as strong as it is for the less-serious basal and sqaumous cell types. Furthermore, the trunk (mostly on the back) is by far the most likely spot for males to have melanoma, so it's theoretically even less safe than other areas.

So, no. The risk profiles for lower-level regular exposure (say, for construction workers) and high infrequent exposure (once a year beach vacations with bad burns) have different outcomes but neither is necessarily safe.

A lack of sun exposure will result in much lower levels of vitamin D, but 15 minutes in the sun unprotected is more than enough to produce what a normal person needs (supplements will not provide this). Interestingly, for those with a history of melanoma, a study found that future sun burns and exposure in general was slightly inversely proportional to the risk of future melanoma. This may be due to those people getting burnt being less prone (i.e. very pale) to the disease in the first place, since the whiter you are the less likely you'd go sunbathe at that point.

Use a good sunscreen with UVA protection, since that's the cancer causing stuff. UVB protection will lessen your burn risk but if you stay out longer since you won't burn, if you're not protected from UVA, this is worse than not getting sun at all. Mexoryl SX was just approved by the FDA and any sunscreen containing it is by far the best you can use, although physical blockers like titanium or zinc can be as good.
posted by kcm at 12:04 AM on August 7, 2006

kcm: so does that suggest that if the poster wants to tan without increasing his risk of cancer, a sunscreen with UVA protection but not UVB would help?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:42 AM on August 7, 2006

Response by poster: Casper it is! Thanks for the replies.
posted by BruceL at 5:36 AM on August 7, 2006

Some sun is good for you.
posted by caddis at 6:51 AM on August 7, 2006

Tanning = production of melanin in response to (among other things) UV radiatio, which means that by the time you're changing colour, the UV radiation has already penetrated your skin.
(Disclaimer: IANAD, but my PhD project is about molecular mechanisms of pigmentation.)
posted by easternblot at 7:00 AM on August 7, 2006

Skin cancer will happen anywhere there is skin. If you don't want skin cancer, you'll have to tan something that doesn't have skin. I guess that would be your internal organs, but I'm doubtful that wouldn't cause problems either.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:03 AM on August 7, 2006

Anecdotal reason to wear sun protection: my uncle worked as a gardener for years with minimal sun protection. While he always wore pants, he ended up with skin cancer lesions on his penis. So protect your wang (and other vital bits) and wear sunscreen.
posted by killy willy at 10:20 AM on August 7, 2006

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