20% of Gen Z adults say getting a tan is 'more important' to them than preventing skin cancer. Experts weigh in — and they're concerned.
"There is no such thing as a healthy tan if your tan is from a tanning bed or exposure to the sun," one dermatologist tells Yahoo Life.
Most Gen Z adults ages 18 to 25 are unaware of the risks of sunburn and some believe outdated myths about tanning, according to a new survey from the American Academy of Dermatology.
The survey of more than 1,000 Gen Z adults revealed that 71% of them are unaware of the risks associated with sunburn. Thirty-six percent reported having a sunburn in 2022, and 41% of those said the sunburn was severe enough that it made wearing clothes uncomfortable.
Nearly 60% of those surveyed also believed old tanning myths, such as that tanning is healthy and that a base tan will prevent sunburn. Even those who may know that tanning is harmful aren't necessarily willing to give that up and practice sun safety. The survey found that 20% of Gen Z adults reported that getting a tan is "more important" to them than preventing skin cancer, while 30% admitted that "it's worth looking great now even if it means looking worse later in life," according to the survey.
Experts aren't entirely surprised by this. "I think it is a commonly repeated trend with each generation: The younger people in their teens and 20s feel invincible and don't think that it 'will happen to them,'" Dr. Jeremy Fenton, dermatologist and medical director at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "They also tend to worry less about things that may happen to them in the distant future. This is in part just normal human nature. Therefore, I am not entirely surprised that these statistics show that they are not as concerned about sun protection."
That said, Fenton adds that he would have expected this generation to be "more aware of sun safety and the risks of excessive sun exposure than prior generations at the same age. The data quoted above doesn't compare to past generations at the same age, so it's hard to say if things are getting better or worse."
Dr. Jennifer Holman, a dermatologist in Texas and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, says that most teenagers and young adults don't often think about the long-term consequences of their decisions — and that includes sun exposure. "As a mother of three teenagers I can certainly speak to that," Holman tells Yahoo Life. "While we are seeing fewer young adults and teenagers using tanning beds, the education around sun safety doesn't always resonate. When I speak to younger patients about the risks of sunburns and tanning, they often listen more when I speak about the cosmetic consequences, as 'skin cancer' doesn't seem like it can affect them."
Part of the problem is that wearing sunscreen and protecting yourself from the sun is a preventative behavior without immediate benefits, explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner, associate professor of dermatology and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "It can be difficult to motivate people to prevent something from possibly happening in the future when they are living in the present," he tells Yahoo Life. "Generally speaking, people live in disbelief that something like skin cancer will happen to them until it is too late."
Why even just one sunburn is harmful
Sunburns not only cause premature aging, such as wrinkles and dark spots, but they also raise the risk of developing skin cancer, says Zeichner. "Even a single sunburn can increase your lifetime risk for both skin cancer and the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma," explains Holman.
When you get a sunburn, that's a sign that you have a significant amount of damage to the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, explains Fenton. "This damage is not just what you see: redness and peeling that goes away," he says. "The damage is done on a cellular level to the DNA in the skin cells."
This DNA damage is what can lead to skin cancers in the future. "Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence will double your risk of melanoma later in life," says Fenton.
'There is no such thing as a healthy tan'
Even if you never get a sunburn, cumulative exposure to UV rays has been "definitively" shown to increase your risk of skin cancers in addition to aging the skin, says Fenton. While a tan might look good on the outside to some, it's actually a sign that your body is responding to DNA breakage and damage to the skin. "The skin is trying to protect itself by producing more melanin or pigment," explains Fenton. "Therefore, a tan is a response of your skin to damage. You cannot get a tan without incurring some damage to your skin."
Holman agrees, saying: "There is no such thing as a healthy tan if your tan is from a tanning bed or exposure to the sun." She adds that the myth of a base tan "just doesn't make sense," saying: "It's exposing your body to smaller amounts of carcinogens so you can be exposed to larger amounts of carcinogens. Overall, the damage continues to accumulate."
How do experts get the message across?
Experts say that raising awareness about the risks of sun exposure — both in terms of skin cancer and premature aging — can help encourage people to prioritize sun protection over getting a tan, along with the message that self-tanner is a safer alternative to UV tanning for those who want the look of a tan.
"Just like seatbelts and smoking, with more education we should see safer behavior," says Fenton. "Many people don't really understand the true risk of melanoma, which is deadly. Many people also don't understand the potential risk of non-melanoma skin cancer, such as being left with disfiguring scars on the face and body."
Gen Z is not the only generation to choose short-term benefits and what Holman calls "feel-good options" in many areas of life while ignoring the risks to their health. "Sun exposure is no different," she says. But experts say it's important for young adults and teens in particular to understand that the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, "is not just a disease of the elderly," says Holman. "All ages need to be aware of the risks of suntanning and sunburns, as what you do as a child and young adult impacts your long-term risk."
To reduce your risk of skin cancer, Holman recommends seeking shade when out in the sun, wearing protective clothing and applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all skin that clothing doesn't cover. If you notice any new spots on your skin, any spots that look different from the others or anything changing, itching or bleeding, see a dermatologist to get it checked out.
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