There are two eternal truths about beauty. The first: Every generation reinvents the ideal. The second: Those who aren’t naturally endowed with it will go to extremes—even risk their lives—in an effort to attain it. Women in ancient Greece and Rome used poisonous lead paints to whiten their faces, dreading the bronze skin identified with common laborers. By the 10th century, arsenic was the preferred skin whitener. A century ago, no Southern belle or Yankee debutante dared go out in the sun without her parasol and gloves.
So how did we go from avoiding UV rays at all costs to competitive tanning? Blame it on Coco Chanel. In the 1920s, Chanel inadvertently obtained a tan while cruising from Paris to Cannes. Et voilà! Suddenly, European women were sunbathing, bulky swimsuits shrunk to reveal as much flesh as the law allowed, and the tan became the international symbol of wealth and leisure. Now, its pursuers are putting their lives at risk just as those ancient types did using arsenic and lead paint.
We know what you’re thinking: “I’m careful. I always get a base coat. I never burn.” Well, actually you do—you just don’t see it. When skin is exposed to UV radiation, there’s an increase in pigment, called melanin. That darkening of your skin tone is a sign of damage. “Contrary to popular belief,” says the FDA, “getting a tan will not protect your skin from sunburn or other skin damage.”
The long-term effects of tanning creep up slowly. Imagine you could eat all the hot fudge sundaes and pizzas you wanted and never gain an ounce until your 40th birthday. Then—wham!—you blow up like a blimp. That’s how a lifetime of tanning catches up with you. Through your teens, 20s and 30s, life is a beach. Then you wake up on the other side of 40, and your face looks like a map of New Jersey that’s been dragged through the mud and baked to a crisp.
“There is no such thing as a healthy tan,” says Bryn Mawr Dermatology’s Dr. Christine Stanko. “What people call a tan, we dermatologists call a pre-cancer glow.”
A physician who works with the Phillies, Stanko identifies questionable lesions on fair- and dark-skinned players. “It’s more challenging getting men to use sunscreen,” she admits. “Women are used to putting creams and lotions on their face. So for the Phillies, I recommend gels with an SPF of 15 in the winter and 30 or higher in the summer.”
Off the field, Stanko is seeing skin cancer on patients in their 20s. “It’s due to multiple factors, including skin type, sun exposure, tanning salons and family history,” she says.
Malignant melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has dramatically increased in recent years and is the most common cancer in women ages 25-29, claiming 8,000 lives annually. “It’s never too late to develop a daily regime to care for your skin,” says Stanko, a former lifeguard who experienced her own share of over-exposure. “Your skin can regenerate and heal itself.”
In addition to wearing sunscreen and avoiding prolonged sun exposure, Stanko recommends using prescription-strength topical creams derived from vitamins A and C, as well as alpha hydroxy acid and chemical peels.
As for the $5-billion-a-year indoor tanning industry, a 2002 Dartmouth Medical School study found that people who use tanning salons have more than twice the risk of developing skin cancer. The risk is highest for adolescent girls.
The tanning industry claims that cancer is caused by sunburn, and that “controlled tanning” prevents melanoma. False. It also claims that UV exposure produces vitamin D, which protects against certain cancers. Not true, either. All tanning damages skin cells. You can’t protect the skin by damaging it. The American Medical Association has labeled tanning beds as the health-risk equivalent to cigarettes and has urged prohibiting their use by minors.
Now the good news: You don’t need to risk sun damage and melanoma to get a fabulous, year-round tan. You can achieve that healthy glow safely and quickly by taking advantage of a wide array of sunless tanning products. Sold as creams, gels, lotions and sprays, they all contain DHA (dihydroxyacetone). When applied to your skin, DHA temporarily darkens its outermost layer. The coloring doesn’t wash off, but fades in five to seven days.
At one time, all you had to do was stay out of the sun from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and you had it made in the shade. That was before we cut a hole in the ozone layer. Now you should avoid direct exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Until recently, sunscreen manufacturers could claim UVA protection based on their own tests. The FDA now demands a standard testing protocol and new warning labels.
If you’re out and about during those hours, wear sunscreen, even when driving. Make sure to use it on all exposed skin, including your hands. Wear sun hats, visors and sunglasses.
Savvy cosmetics companies offer facial moisturizers with SPF 15 in tinted and non-tinted versions. If you want a darker tint, just add a dollop of bronze-colored gel blush. Don’t like the feel of creams and gels on your face? Brush on a powder-based bronzer with SPF 15. For your lips, use a gel-based sunscreen and reapply often.
How do you choose your SPF number? If you’re fair, always burn and rarely tan, use SPF 20-30. If you’re fair, burn easily and sometimes tan, use SPF 15-20. Light-skinned people who tan gradually should use SPF 8-12; medium-skinned individuals who tan well can use SPF 4-8; and dark-skinned people who tan quickly and easily should wear SPF 2-4. For the best protection, apply sunscreen an hour before going outdoors and reapply liberally every one to two hours, especially after swimming or sweating.
If years of unprotected sun exposure have prematurely aged your face, hands and chest, there is something you can do about it. Local plastic surgeon Dr. Paul Kim recommends two types of laser treatments, which remove brown spots, create a more youthful appearance, and zap precancerous lesions.
“Photo rejuvenation and pro-fractional lasers heat the upper layers of the skin and stimulate new collagen while targeting the unwanted pigmented lesions,” says Kim, who offers treatments at Allure MediSpa in Paoli. “One laser uses a pulsed light; the other uses radio frequency waves. We tailor treatments to the individual.”
Leathery, wrinkled skin and dark spots resulting from unprotected UV exposure.
Cancer that begins in the epidermal cells.
Sunburn of the cornea caused by intense UV exposure to the eye from natural sunlight or tanning lamps.
Actinic or solar keratoses
Pre-malignant symptoms, including scaly bumps and rough skin, caused by long-term sun exposure.
The medical term for sunburn.
Ultraviolet sunray wavelength more likely to cause tanning; creates no heat on the skin.
Ultraviolet sunray wavelength more likely to cause sunburn; creates heat on the skin.
Sun protection factor.
The active ingredient in sunless tanning products; darkens the skin.
1. If you get a base tan, you won’t burn as easily.
2. Naturally dark-skinned people are not at risk for skin cancer.
3. Tanning salons are safe, as long as you don’t overdo it.
4. Sunscreen should not be applied to infants under six months of age.
5. If you use baby oil when you sunbathe, your skin will stay supple and soft.
6. The negative effects of sun damage aren’t visible until you’re over 40.
7. The sun doesn’t damage your eyes unless you look directly at it.
8. It’s best to wear an SPF 15 sunscreen even during the winter and on overcast summer days.
9. If your parents had skin cancer, you are at an increased risk.
10. The hole in the ozone layer has increased the risk of skin cancer for everyone.