Tans have long been a ritual of summer. Getting that deep, golden glow is often equated with fun, sun and youthful energy. But as we now know, that sun-kissed look can have long-term consequences.
Talking to teens about the risks of tanning can be a challenge, particularly since they don’t tend to think about long-term consequences. Since most damage from sun exposure occurs years down the road, the risks of a tan might seem irrelevant to them now.
“Every parent knows that it can be difficult to get teens to listen to their advice, especially when it comes to safety,” says Dr. Ross Reule a board-certified dermatologist at U.S. Dermatology Partners Shoal Creek in Liberty, Missouri. “This isn’t a ‘one-and-done’ conversation. Instead, it’s an ongoing dialogue and practice that your entire family should be involved in.”
But first, Dr. Reule advises, parents must educate themselves.
“You’ll need to know what the risks are in order to be able to approach this topic with your teen,” Dr. Reule says. “Learn the consequences of sun damage, including the breakdown of elastin and a thickening of the skin's texture, and make sure you know what this can do to their health down the road.”
Teaching them the consequences of a great tan can include talking to them about skin discoloration and moles, but more importantly, you’ll want to warn them against skin cancer.
It’s hard to get a teen to think about this affecting her life decades from now, so you have to actively make sure she is wearing sunscreen and limiting the amount of exposure she's getting.
Preventing Sun Damage Through Education
What is important to you as a parent is probably quite different from what’s important to your teen. While you are concerned with long-term health risks, your daughter or son is usually more interested in appearance.
“You have to talk to them based on why they’re interested in tanning,” Dr. Reule says. “If they think they look better with a tan, then talk about the risks of tanning as it relates to their long-term attractiveness or beauty and then tie in the health risks.”
Underscoring the way that tanning ages one’s skin can be an effective argument, and a few pictures pulled from the internet to illustrate your point probably won’t hurt, either.
“Nobody wants to think that they’re going to look 10 years older than their friends when they’re 30 or 40,” says Dr. Reule. “While they may not always respond to the threat of skin cancer or other forms of sun damage, they might be more willing to listen to you if they can see examples of how this can prematurely age them.”
Don’t Ignore Tanning Bed Risks
It’s important to let teens know that exposure to the sun isn’t the only risky way to tan; tanning beds are just as dangerous. Many people believe that tanning beds are safer than exposure to the sun, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“Tanning beds are actually more dangerous than sun exposure,” Dr. Reule says. “They can put out three times more UVA exposure than the sun. That means your skin can get more severely burned and damaged than if you were out in the sun.”
You can point out that multiple states have even enacted laws that prevent teens under the age of 18 from using indoor tanning devices such as tanning beds and booths.
This tells you just how serious the problem is for teens.
Avoid Risks By Using Other Tanning Options
So what do you say to a teen who, even after hearing the health risks and beauty consequences, is determined to get a golden glow?
Try presenting healthier alternatives, including the many self-tanning products and bronzing powders available. A spray tan is another option — and, you can point out to your teen, it’s much faster than laying out in the sun. All these options look natural and don't carry the risks of sun exposure.
These are great alternatives to the sun for a teen who still wants that tanned appearance. It’s important, though, that they remember these products usually do not contain sunscreen, so they’ll need to make sure that they are still using a broad-spectrum sunscreen when they go outside.
The key to getting your message to sink in is to be consistent — and to repeat it often. The earlier in life you teach your children about how to safely handle their time in the sun and manage the risks of tanning, the better success you’ll have.
“This is a message you’ll want to repeat again and again to make sure all members of your family are protecting themselves from sun damage,” Dr. Reule says. You’ll want to practice what you preach, of course, and make sure your teen sees you taking it seriously.
“This is something that will affect them for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Reule says. “It’s not about just a couple of sunburns; this could have lasting harmful consequences.”