Let’s face it. No matter what we say about the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UVR), many people simply think they look better tan. I’m not talking about the overbaked Jersey Shore bronze or George Hamilton’s year-round orange hue, I mean the perceived “healthy” glow attained after an unprotected day at a lake or a weekend outdoor festival. Look at any grassy park, poolside or beach in the summer and you see rows and rows of people lying out on towels and blankets, soaking the sun into their bare skin. Later, these sunbathers hear the praise from family and friends: “You have such nice color.” “You look so healthy.” The compliments abound.
A 2010 Emory University study shows our proclivity towards tanned skin. Using Photoshop, researchers altered 45 photos of women aged 21 to 35 to look like they were tan. The original photos and the tan photos were posted to an attractiveness rating website. The photos of the “tanned” women were twice as likely to be rated attractive.
Our brains are not biologically predisposed to think that tanned skin is better-looking. It’s a matter of culture and trends. Historically, tanned skin was seen as anything but chic; it was a sign of the working class and in Asia today, a billion-dollar beauty industry revolves around achieving pale, porcelain skin. In the US, what will it take for cultural attitudes to shift to prizing the skin we’re born with, natural-looking and unharmed by the sun?
Unlike prior generations that slathered on baby oil in the sun, the public can no longer claim ignorance. We know that UVR from the sun and indoor tanning beds can cause disfiguring and deadly skin cancers as well as premature aging. We know that a tan is literally a sign of damage to the skin’s DNA - damage that keeps accumulating over the years and can lead to skin cancer.
It’s not such a lengthy process, either. Alarmingly, the period between initial UV damage and skin cancer is growing shorter each year. As we report in this issue of Sun & Skin News, melanoma rates are skyrocketing in young people, particularly young white women who are the strongest adherents of the “tan is beautiful” ideal. They refuse to accept the truth – that there is no such thing as a healthy tan. We must make it mandatory in our schools to educate each new generation about sun safety and the dangers of indoor tanning. We must step up our efforts to reach high-risk populations, such as young white women and older men. We urge every one of you to stand up and be heard. If you see someone tanning, say something. Help us spark a cultural shift towards a society that values natural skin color, whatever its hue, and recognizes that sun-damaged skin should be seen as folly rather than attractive. The next time you see someone making sun-smart choices and protecting herself, pay her a compliment on her healthy, natural, beautiful skin.
Published on September 9, 2015