Katie Baker

Contact: Brad Lifford
May 21, 2013

ETSU researcher on tanning: Don't scrimp on the sunscreen


JOHNSON CITY – When the skin is cut or scraped, part of its defense and recovery mechanism is to form a scab. And skin does the same thing when tanned or burned by sunrays.

"A tan is like a scab," said Dr. Katie Baker, an assistant professor in the East Tennessee State University Department of Community and Behavioral Health, housed in the College of Public Health. "A tan is your body's way of protecting itself from further ultraviolet radiation damage when that UV radiation penetrates and damages your skin cells."

Baker, who received her doctoral degree in public health from ETSU earlier this month, conducts research on tanning in the ETSU Skin Cancer Prevention Laboratory. She focuses most of her work on indoor tanning, but has also studied the effects of outdoor tanning, too. With many schools on break and summer vacations looming, Baker said it's an ideal time to consider ways to enjoy the sun and still protect the skin. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Confusion persists, Baker said, about the merits of tanning instead of burning. Some assume that tanning is OK even if burning is not. Not true, Baker said.

"A sunburn is more severe damage, but a tan is damage, too," Baker said. "And once the sunburn or tan fades, the damage doesn't fade. People who wrinkle prematurely or have age spots have skin damage."

Statistics show that young men and women should be concerned about sun exposure, as melanoma is the most common cancer in people ages 25-29. In young people and especially in adolescents, Baker said, the skin is particularly susceptible to damage as the cells are still developing and multiplying more rapidly than in adults. Baker herself was a tanner in her teens, but knowledge has changed her approach to time outdoors.

"I do love the beach, but when I'm on the beach, I usually sit under an umbrella," Baker said. "When you're outdoors you should stay in the shade as much as possible. Wear sunglasses because you can also develop ocular melanoma. And wear a hat with a three- to four-inch brim. That's especially important for men – baseball hats don't count – because men's ears are a very common place for skin cancer."
Last but certainly not least, wear sunscreen – lots of sunscreen. The numerical sun protection factor (SPF) that purportedly denotes its power is also a source of confusion, Baker said, because the numeric factors don't entirely mesh with the SPF formula.

SPF is a measure of how much longer people are protected from sunburn in comparison to if they were wore none at all. A fair-skinned person will burn in about 15 minutes, Baker said, so SPF 30 should provide protection for 450 minutes – despite the general rule of thumb that any sunscreen should be reapplied liberally every two hours.

"An SPF 15 every two hours is what you need," Baker said. "The truth is that reapplication is way more important than SPF."