Tanning: Beauty is Only Skin Deep, But Skin Cancer Can Go Deeper

The rains have descended. Even worse, the low, grey, eight-month cloud has imposed itself between skin and sun. Even for those of us who love the winter weather there’s a certain bittersweet resignation to the Long Grey. For others, it’s downright depressing, and there’s no such resignation: there are tanning salons.

Preying on those prone to seasonal-affective disorder, as well as those more susceptible to cultural notions of beauty exemplified by, say, Tan Republic’s slogan “Tan is beautiful,” are six tanning salons in Corvallis, including “Sunsations,” “Electric Beach,” and “Personal Summer.” Tanning salons’ popularity in the rainy Pacific Northwest is mirrored nationwide; each year about 10 percent of the American public visits an indoor tanning facility.

What’s weird about this is that you’d really have to be living in a giant cloud of ignorance not to know that indoor tanning dramatically increases the risk of skin cancer. Pretty much every medical organization in the world, including the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health, classify the UV light from indoor tanning beds as a carcinogen, in the same risk category as arsenic, asbestos, benzene, dioxin, mustard gas, and vinyl chloride.

Exposure to any UV light can be damaging to the skin. Intentionally exposing your entire body to UV light is especially dangerous. Indoor tanning beds compound this danger, as the UV light emitted by tanning beds is not the same as UV light emanating from the sun. Sunlight emits three spectrums of UV light: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Exposure to UVA rays are responsible for one’s tan, while exposure to UVB rays contribute to sunburns. In order to avoid sunburns—decidedly bad for business—most tanning salons calibrate their tanning beds to emit approximately 95 percent UVA rays—as much as 12 times that of the sun. Unfortunately, UVA light heavily damages DNA in skin. These DNA mutations often result in skin cancer.

The question is: why do so many people not care?

Maybe most tanners think that skin cancer strikes only those whose lifetime of excessive UV exposure has left leathery, purple, sun-spotted, and wrinkled. Unfortunately, tanning increases the risk of skin cancer in young people. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the use of indoor tanning devices before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—by 75 percent. And not just excessive use: Alan Geller, a leading researcher on the epidemiology of skin cancer, has stated that there’s “basically a 1 to 0.5 percent extra risk for melanoma for each time you use [a tanning bed].” Melanoma is already the most prevalent form of cancer among women aged 20 to 29, and rates are skyrocketing, coinciding with a boom in the indoor tanning industry.

Or maybe tanners buy into the unfounded and overstated “health benefits” of tanning. One supposed benefit, promoted most notably by the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA), whose mission, somewhat hilariously, is “to protect the freedom of individuals to acquire a suntan,” is that tanning fulfills the body’s Vitamin D requirements.

Vitamin D does indeed arise out of a physiological reaction between sunlight and skin. What the industry fails to point out is that, one: Vitamin D production is caused by exposure to UVB rays, not UVA rays, thus tanning beds minimize the amount of Vitamin D that can be metabolized; and two: once processed by the body, Vitamin D is Vitamin D, offering the same benefits to the body whether it comes from the sun, food, or dietary supplements.

Another claim trumpeted defensively by the ITA is that of the “base tan” concept—that one’s tan prevents sunburns. Unfortunately, avoiding sunburn is not the same as avoiding skin cancer. Sunburns are especially damaging to the skin and particularly dangerous for youth, but skin cancer can develop even without burning. Base tanning actually increases one’s likelihood of skin cancer.

No, the main benefit of tanning is confined to temporarily bolstering the self-esteem of those who link their self-worth to their skin color. But even this doesn’t hold up. In the long run, the Tanned One’s cosmetic condition is anything but improved; the facial surgery required to remove carcinogenic basal cells leaves scars visible even between one’s sun-wrinkles.

So please don’t tan, for your sake, and for the sake of society—the National Cancer Institute estimated the total direct cost of treating melanoma in 2010 was $2.36 billion dollars. If you feel better with golden skin, try sunless tanning products. If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough Vitamin D, take an over-the-counter Vitamin D supplement or eat more salmon or eggs. If you’re heading down to Mexico for winter break, simply slather on a lot of sunscreen. And if watching the rain through the window depresses you, buy good rain gear, step outside, and learn to love the Oregon winter.

by Nathaniel Brodie