It’s not a complete shocker to hear about people partaking in behaviors
that they know are unhealthy. (Fried food, caffeine, or beer bongs, anyone?)
Still, the idea of tanning — actively lying out in the sun —
seems a particularly retro and risky choice in 2016, since melanoma is
such a deadly form of cancer. But according to a new American Academy
of Dermatology survey, people are still going after that “healthy
glow,” even though they know there’s no such thing.
A whopping 98 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34 who tan understand
that skin cancer can be deadly, the survey found — and 71 percent
of the women know that the idea of a “healthy tan” is a fallacy.
Further, 66 percent of women surveyed know that getting a base tan is
not an effective way to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful
“Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is the second most
common cancer in young women, and we believe this may be due in part to
their tanning habits. It is alarming that young women are continuing to
tan even though they’re aware of the danger,” notes dermatologist
Elizabeth S. Martin, chair of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)
Council on Communications, in a press release about the findings. “Exposure
to UV radiation, whether it’s from the sun or an indoor tanning
device, is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. Women need
to take their knowledge and turn it into action by protecting themselves
from the sun and staying out of tanning beds.”
A new PSA from the AAD called “ Arms” (below), which shows
two friends comparing tans over the years until one winds up in the hospital
with a stage-3 melanoma diagnosis, attempts to communicate the risk factors
to folks who just can’t stop tanning.
So where’s the disconnect?
As Kasey Lynn Morris, a Ph.D. in social psychology about to start her post
as a researcher with the National Cancer Institute, tells Yahoo Beauty,
“Identity and self-esteem concerns are a very important motivation
in health behaviors” — even more important than health itself.
In other words: Being healthy is one thing, but if looking tan (or, more
positively, eating healthily or exercising) makes you
feel better about yourself, then it will likely win out.
Morris, who spent time researching sun tanning in the face of skin-cancer
threats while she was a student at the University of South Florida, explains
that tanning, in particular, may be an even harder nut to crack than,
say, smoking. “Smoking has become something where people say, ‘Eww,
smoking is gross,’ and so you don’t want to be the type of
person who smokes,” she explains. “But for women especially,
appearance is a prime source of self-esteem, so there’s that competing
motivation of being healthy but also having that ‘healthy glow.’”
For perpetuating the myth that a tan is healthy, we can thank, for starters,
Coco Chanel, who apparently turned the pre-Industrial Revolution idea
of a leisure-class pallor on its head in the 1920s by accidentally getting
too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise. Photographs of her made the sun-kissed
look chic, and tanning became aspirational, a symbol of wealth and leisure.
Even though that idea has been ever-so-slowly tamped down since the 1980s,
when sunscreens with higher SPFs were introduced, it’s been a tough
one to fight.
A quick and unscientific Facebook poll for this article, asking those who
like to get tan why they do it when they know it’s unsafe, brought
in the following responses: “It’s another addiction that’s
hard to break,” “Makes me feel better to be nice and tan —
and makes my teeth look whiter,” and “I just think I look
Barbara Greenberg, a Connecticut-based psychologist, tells Yahoo Beauty,
“My sense is that people feel like it’s a very quick way to
look refreshed and like they’ve just been on vacation. Like Botox
and other quick fixes,” she says, “it certainly takes on an
addictive quality. Men and women seem to become equally addicted. They
also feel like it makes them look younger, and associate tans with youth.”
The youth factor is a big influence, Martin tells Yahoo Beauty. “Unfortunately,
I think some women (and men) continue to tan because they see the immediate
results of the tan but do not consciously recognize the risk of skin cancer
they will face in the future. Young people often see skin cancer as a
disease of older people,” she says, whereas melanoma is the second
most common cancer in women ages 15 to 29. “Many young women still
use indoor tanning beds, unfortunately, and using indoor tanning devices
before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 59 percent, with the
risk increasing with each use.”
Martin says she often hears patients say they only tan for special occasions,
or before a vacation, but she aims to warn them all the same. “I
remind them that tanning in any way is damaging the DNA in their cells,”
she says. “I quote the statistics. I tell them about one of my first
patients who had an invasive melanoma at age 19 and how frightening that
was for that patient and that family. … I often also tell them
that while they may feel like this tan makes them look great for this
prom, or this vacation, if they choose not to tan and choose to protect
their skin, they will look better than everyone else at their class reunions!
Many times each day, I say, ‘You will thank me when you are 40.
Originally featured on YahooBeauty.com by Beth Greenfield