Do folks still sit in the sun to tan? - (7/13/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

The pharmacist remarked to Ralph as he walked into the store, "Wow! That's quite a burn you got there!" "Yeah, I was outside gardening for only a few hours," Ralph said. "You should see my chest and back! Do you think with this climate change, the earth is getting closer to the sun?" Ralph has seen too many science fiction movies. But he has not heeded common-sense medical advice.

Not to get all science-y about it. But skin cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the US, according to 2021 American Cancer Society data. There are different kinds of skin cancer – melanoma, basal cell, squamous – and most are treatable. This does not give you the thumbs up to bake in the sun and think you can get that festering malignant mole plucked, and back you are to the beach. The Madison Avenue myth is that tanned skin is healthier, more radiant, more youthful. Consider the tanning process in animal skin. Here, hides are converted into leather by being soaked in a liquid containing tannic acid and other chemicals. Aren't these sun gods and goddesses doing the same thing? Transforming their raw hides into leather?  Yet, animal hides are taken from dead mammals. But your skin is the largest organ you've got. It lives and breathes and houses your organs. And you abuse it in the name of fashion.

Tanned skin is damaged skin. So, when the pharmacist now sees a tanned person, he thinks of his cousin who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. Her doctors found tumors in her lungs and intestines. She did not have a chance. He remembers how his cousin's husband wanted the funeral director to do her make-up, so she looked deeply bronzed in her white lace coffin. "She wanted her friends to see her glowing and healthy," he said. The irony was palpable. She was 46 and dead.  

"Do you use sunscreen?" the pharmacist asked Ralph. "Nah, does that stuff work? We didn't have it as kids. So why use it now? And it was on Fox that sunscreens can cause cancer." At that, the pharmacist almost dropped his mortar and pestle. After some quick digging, the pharmacist found a May 31, 2021, news report published by the "Fox Propaganda Network." The story was entitled "Dozens of sunscreens have cancer-causing chemical, lab claims." The chemical in question was benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to leukemia and other blood cell cancers. But that is not the point. People have limited attention spans. So, when they hear that "some" sunscreens can cause cancer, their take-away message is that "all" sunscreens cause cancer. And these misinformation jockeys will tell you to your face, "My grandpappy didn't use none of them fancy sunscreens when he worked on the farm!" No, it was pesticides, cigarettes, whiskey, and a lifelong addiction to ham hocks are what done him in, thought the pharmacist. 

Skip the skin cancer scene! Avoid sun exposure between 10AM and 4PM when the ultraviolet rays are most pernicious. Know that older people with a multi-decade history of sun exposure and young people who have perfect baby-like skin are at most risk. Here's a sobering fact: Light-skinned people have a skin cancer incidence almost 30 times higher than individuals of color. Other risk factors? A family history of melanoma and the presence of large or numerous moles. But remember, people of color can and do get skin cancer. No one is safe. And tanning beds are just as lethal. 

Do something this summer besides fry your epidermis! Volunteer to help young kids. Help an older person clean out his garage. Learn a foreign language. Your friends will like you better if you can bat around a few French words than if they have to spend time at your memorial service. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


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