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-- By Sam Folk-Williams
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.

I often wondered why there were so many oddly tan-looking people traipsing around in New England in, say, the middle of February. Coming from the Southwest, the idea of using a tanning salon had never occurred to me. As it turns out, though, millions of Americans use sun beds and tanning salons, and college-aged people are among the most prominent users.

When people tan, ultraviolet radiation is being absorbed by their skin, causing the melanocytes (the cells that produce the pigment melanin) to increase and multiply. It is better to tan than it is to sunburn, but burning is usually what happens before you tan. In either case, the change in your skin color is in part your body's reaction to having been overexposed to the sun.

The sun is the primary source for ultraviolet radiation, which is the most prevalent, avoidable cause of skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common cancer, making up about half of all cancer cases in the United States. Tanning beds and sun lamps emit ultraviolet radiation just like the sun, and can also cause skin cancer. This isn't news to anybody, but it continues to be an interesting source of irony.

For some reason, many people tend to look at tanned skin on light-skinned people as an aesthetic plus, a cosmetic "do," and generally an attractive quality to obtain. Lots of light-skinned people are embarrassed to wear shorts or bathing suits because their skin is "too white and pasty." In other words, not only is tanning thought of as good, but not tanning is thought of as bad--a source of personal embarrassment.

The American Cancer Society continually tries to educate people about how to protect themselves from the sun's harmful UV rays. The basic steps involve wearing clothes that cover most of your skin, wearing a hat, and properly applying sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) throughout the day while in the sun. What these methods of protection don't account for, though, is the fact that people don't want to hide from the sun; they want to be tan.

A study published in the September 1999 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Vol. 91, No. 15), revealed that many young people who use sunscreens with a high SPF (30 or above) acquire a sense of "false security" and stay in the sun for longer, increasing their chance of harmful UV exposure. The study also found that many people do not properly apply their sunscreen. They either don't use enough or don't reapply it often enough, which also increases their UV exposure, and their chances of getting skin cancer. The National Institute of Environmental Health Science also confirms (through surveys they have conducted) that many Americans want to develop tans despite the fact that they are aware of the risks of UV-radiation exposure. Also, many people do not use sunscreen even though they know it is proven to help prevent the damaging effects of UV radiation.

Aside from saying that we need to reevaluate the social ideals that tell us tanned skin is attractive and un-tanned skin is embarrassing, there are some ways you can make tanning less harmful:

  • Use moderation; if you really want to get some sun, limit your exposure and try to avoid being in the sun during the brightest part of the day (between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).

  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 15, and use it properly. This means applying a generous amount over all parts of the skin that are exposed, and reapplying it continuously throughout your time in the sun.

  • Wear a hat to protect your face, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

  • Remember than sun exposure doesn't just occur when you are tanning--it happens every time you go outside.

  • When you're not trying to "get some sun" but are still going to be outside, consider covering up with comfortable clothes instead of relying on sunscreen. Sunscreens are helpful, but there is some evidence that they still leave you vulnerable to skin cancer and are not as effective as simply covering up.

  • Check your skin regularly for signs of damage--most cases of skin cancer can be treated if they are detected early. Check yourself after you bathe, standing in front of a full-length mirror with plenty of light. An important sign to look out for is a change in the size, texture, shape, and color of any blemishes (freckles, moles, birthmarks) that you have. So, make sure you are familiar with the marks on your body--that way you can tell if they change. It is also important to make note of sores, especially if they don't heal. If you notice anything unusual, see a doctor right away. Also, it's good to ask a doctor to check your skin when you are seeing him or her for a regular check-up or physical.

The American Cancer Society. "Learn to Protect Your Skin to Lower Risk of Skin Cancer." Accessed June 29, 2000.

The American Cancer Society. "UV Exposure." Accessed June 27, 2000.

Brody, Jane. "Personal Health: Sunscreens May Not Block Worst Skin Cancer." The New York Times. July 14, 1998.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Science (U.S.). "Solar Radiation and Exposure to Sunlamps or Sunbeds" Accessed June 26, 2000.

Weinstock, Martin A. "Overview of Ultraviolet Radiation and Cancer: What Is the Link? How Are We Doing?" Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 103, Supplement 8, November 1995. Accessed June 29, 2000.