The Hissing of Summer Skin

by DavalosMcCormack on June 1, 2010

First there was anorexia, the eating disorder where the individual is obsessed and afraid of putting on weight even though they are stick thin. Then there was “fatorexia”, the other end of the spectrum, where people were unable to see or acknowledge that they were not just overweight but obese. Now there is “tanorexia”, that’s where a person is obsessed with being tanned and is addicted to either laying out in the sun when possible, or using indoor tanning salons when there’s no sun outside.

This is more than just a matter of loving catchy names or building on existing ones – in the same way that every political crisis after Watergate ended with the suffix “gate” – it’s an effective way of drawing attention to a problem by tying it to another, already accepted medical issue.

For instance no one could look at someone who is anorexic and think that looks healthy – and if you do I have an excellent opthalmologist who can help you. Nor could they look at someone morbidly obese and think that’s a comfortable or healthy way to live. Attaching a label like “tanorexic” to those addicted to the sun is a smart way of highlighting the dangers of something that you might think is really just a lifestyle choice. But there’s nothing benign about skin cancer, and much as we would wish it otherwise, excessive exposure to the sun’s rays are the fastest, easiest, sexiest way to get skin cancer.

A new study, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, found that going to an indoor tanning salon raises your risk of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, by a whopping 75 percent, and frequent users of tanning beds are up to 3 times more likely to develop melanoma than people who never use tanning devices.

Not surprisingly the tanning salon industry (a $5 billion a year business) is hitting back and pointing out limitations in the study, as they always do whenever a piece of research like this comes out. But here’s the problem. Pieces of research like this have been coming out for years and they all tend to point to the same thing, that excessive sun exposure – regardless of whether it’s indoors or outdoors – puts you at increased risk of skin cancer. And the whiter your skin to begin, the more risk you are at. For instance, the American Cancer Society says says that over a lifetime the chance of a melanoma is about one in 50 for someone who is white, one in 200 for Latinos, and one in 1,000 for blacks.

The tanning salon folks can deny it all they like, but they are slowly killing their best customers.

Part of that of course is due to people willingly ignoring the science and instead just deciding that for them, the sun is safe. A recent survey by the American Academy of Dermatology found that many people don’t really know just how dangerous the sun is for them.

The survey found that two thirds of adults thought there were some kinds of ultraviolet (UV) rays that are safe. The truth is that there are two kinds of UV rays, UVA and UVB. UVA can suppress the immune system, which can reduce your body’s ability to protect you against the spread of skin cancer. UVB rays are the burning ones, the ones that turn your skin red. Neither one is good for you.

Half of those asked also thought that getting a base tan is a healthy way to protect your skin from sun damage. The truth is that getting a base tan is a form of damage in and of itself  and doesn’t protect you against further damage. It just protects you against burning.

The bottom line is that the sun is a wonderful thing. It’s a source of life for our planet. It feels wonderful to walk out on a sunny day, to feel that warmth on your face. It lifts our spirits. But it can come with a price. Particularly for whiter than white Irish skinned folks like me. We can enjoy the sun. We can be out in it for long periods of time. We just can’t take it for granted.

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