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.

So being tan is not about health, it's about being cool. Depending on your age group, it's about trying to be like George Hamilton or Britney. Looking good isn't good for you, but it's hard to convince people to give up behavior they like, such as  smoking, overeating, lolling on the couch, even when they know it's not good for them. As for looking old and wrinkled, young people in particular find it hard to believe anything like that could ever happen to them. Moi? An old prune? Never!

Rates of skin cancer, including potentially deadly melanoma, have been rising for years. How much artifical tanning will contribute to this trend is not known yet, but it stands to reason that the mania for looking browner will accelerate it.

One safe alternative: artificial tanning products are safe and help you look realistically bronze. You can even go to places where they spray-paint you with the stuff, like at a car wash. Takes a minute, looks even, and lasts for weeks.

This provides no sun protection, but it can help you imagine you look like Britney, even if the resemblance is only skin deep.

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