You see them all over, guys lying on the grass, at the beach, in the park, on the rocks, wearing skimpy suits and shamelessly working on their tans. “Not exactly working,” joked Jeremy Hilborn, lying on Chicago’s beautiful Kathy Osterman Beach midday on a recent summer Sunday. “And it’s better than lying on the sofa all day.”
“Or washing windows,” added his friend Steve Smith.
Even after all the media blitzing about the dangers of tanning—one person an hour dies of skin cancer in the US—there were Hilborn and Smith, lying there, amid a beach full of bodies, waiting for trouble. Why? Because, let’s face it, many of us look better with a tan. It’s why French fries look so much tastier than naked Idaho spuds.
“When patients tell me about bronzing themselves to look good, I tell them a scar across the face doesn’t look so good either,” says Dr. Brooke Jackson, medical director of Chicago’s Skin Wellness Center. “You’ll never hear a dermatologist say it’s OK to get a tan— unless it’s from a bottle.” She should know. Dr. Jackson is a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University Medical School, a medical ambassador for the American Cancer Society, and an avid runner. She spends a fair amount of time out in the sun herself. “I am vigilant about sun screen and have been for years. I put on a broad-spectrum block 15 minutes before I go outside. Sunburning is your body’s alarm system going off. You need to listen to your body.”
Of course, a lot of the people you see out there in the sun are also the ones still smoking. So fear of getting cancer is not necessarily much of a deterrent. The US Centers for Disease Control put it this way: “Although most Americans are aware of the dangers of UV exposure, only about one third take measures to protect their skin from the sun.” Cancer, from relatively simple basal cell carcinomas to scary melanomas, is not the only danger lurking in the idea of a sexy tan. There is an increased risk of cataracts and plain old premature aging of the skin.
“I saw a patient a few days ago,” Dr. Jackson relates, “she is 25 but looks like a leather purse. The number one, two, and three reasons for premature aging of the skin is the sun.” Dr. Jackson raises an interesting point: If one spends a lot of time in the gym getting in shape, why squander the hard work’s benefits in the sun?
But fundamentally, sun tanning, whether at the beach or in a tanning salon, is all about absorbing ultraviolet radiation, which cooks your skin cells and creates the pigment known as melanin. Melanin makes the skin look dark. Unprotected skin can be harmed by UV rays in as little as 15 minutes. And sun damage is cumulative. “If you are Irish, have fair skin and blue eyes and burn when you stick your finger outdoors,” says Dr. Jackson, “you need to understand who you are. You can’t change it. There is no way to make somebody who is fair into someone who can handle the sun well. If you don’t listen to your body, you will be the one to get skin cancer.”
But what about darker-skinned people? “Brown skin does not let you off the hook,” Dr. Jackson says. “I ask my patients if they know what Bob Marley died from? Melanoma. The idea that your dark skin will protect you is a false sense of security.” What darker skin does give you is a little more initial protection against burning. To better understand the relative dangers for people, dermatologists have created a scale of six types of skin