Tanning Booths and Britney

Medical Author: Alan Rockoff, MD
Medical Editor: Frederick Hecht, MD, FAAP, FACMG

Although I'm not a pop music fan and rarely drink Pepsi, I have heard of Britney Spears. One thing I must say I never noticed about her, though, is her tan.

Apparently I am in a minority there. Reports show that teenaged girls take the tanned skin of stars like Britney as the model for what they should look like themselves. Boys would rather look at Britney than like her, but they have their own tanned role models.

People like to tan. It makes them look cool and feel affluent. They don't like it when their friends make fun of them for looking pale at the prom. Vacationers are embarrassed to show up white-skinned on the beach, so they tan before leaving town, so they can be tan before they tan.

This is good for the tanning business. How bad is it for the public health?

All the answers aren't in yet, but it's becoming clearer that no tanning is "safe tanning." The light bulbs used in tanning salons emit mostly UVA rays. Unlike UVB rays, the rays that sunblocks keep out, longer-wave UVA rays don't cause much burning, and may be less directly related to the risk of skin cancer. But evidence is growing that UVA suntan rays also damage the skin and may lead to aging, wrinkles, and perhaps skin cancer over the course of years.

A myth about tanning is that it gives you a "base coat" that protects at the beach. Not so -- even if you can tan (and really light-skinned people can't), the most protection a tan can give you is an SPF of 6. You should be using SPF15-30 anyway, so as a protector, at best, a tan is beside the point.