The Cost of Tanning
It's right around this time of year, as friends and family gear up for Mexican vacations while I stay put under Seattle's gloomy skies, that my thoughts turn to sunbathing. God, I love sunbathing. It's so fun. It's downright addictive. Whether outside or under a tanning lamp, working on a tan is one of the most relaxing ways to pass the time. Of course, it's also the reason that I have to go to the doctor and get layers of skin chemically peeled off of my face in an attempt to regain the clarity and balanced skin tone that I enjoyed before I started tanning.
Tanning has a lot of hidden costs. You think that your high-pressure bed is worth $40 for 20 minutes of basking in its purpley glow?
According to Business Wire, in 2003:
Ten percent of Americans spend on average $300 per year to tan indoors. This equates to a total US market for tanning of over $9 billion per year, and does not include the $3 billion tanning products market. Enhancements in technology and consumer acceptance are fueling the industry's growth.
I think that this is a serious underestimate of how much people spend tanning, but I suppose it's a ballpark figure that we can work with. I know women that tan year-round, and they aren't paying $30, they're paying well over $100 every couple of weeks. Mind you, the industry is really good at spreading misinformation. If you click that link, enjoy the section about skin cancer. The statistics may be true, but I love the way they are worded to make it look as though tanning is an incredibly benign thing to partake in.
What’s the real cost of time in a tanning bed? Well, it ranges from place to place, but when I started tanning for 3 months a couple of years ago, you could say that the breakdown went something like this:
3-month high-pressure tanning package: $600
Tanning goggles: $4
Years of painful treatments in a possibly futile attempt to regain skin’s natural color and elasticity: priceless
I tanned a couple of times a week in a high-pressure tanning bed that was touted as “safe” and “effective” by the owner of the salon I joined. Because the intense UVA rays provide a deep, dark and fast tan without much burning, even for someone with extremely fair skin, like myself, tanning beds are offered up by the tanning bed industry as a great way to tan without unsightly 3rd degree burns.
It sounded alright to me. I mean, if you don’t burn, then it’s all good, right? Burning must be what causes cancer, right?
[You know that annoying buzzer sound that goes off when a game show contestant guesses wrong? I’m making that sound right now, but you can’t hear me.]
Click here for a good outside explanation of why tanning beds are harmful.
Here’s my breakdown: UVB rays do cause burns, but UVA rays have a longer wavelength, so they penetrate deeper. While exposure to UVA rays in a tanning bed will provide a tan without the burn, the UVA rays are still causing untold damage to your skin and your skin cells’ DNA.
Here's something to keep in mind: a tan is a sign of damage. I know we associate it with glowing health, because you tan if you are outside, and people who spend time outside are healthy, right?
A suntan is the result of injury to the epidermis, the top layer of your skin. A tan develops when UV light accelerates the production of melanin. Melanin is the dark pigment in the epidermis that gives your skin its normal color. The extra melanin — produced to protect the deeper layers of your skin — creates the darker color of a "tan." A suntan is your body's way of blocking out the ultraviolet rays to prevent further injury to the skin, but the protection only goes so far.
My dermatologist, who treated me before and after I did the stint in the tanning booth, thinks that I did roughly 5-7 years of skin damage in those few months. Although I don’t look drastically different from a normal, socially-acceptable distance of roughly 3 to 4 feet, if you get a good look at my skin, it really is damaged. Problems include premature wrinkling, hyperpigmentation, and broken capillaries. Freckles change shape whenever they feel like it, sending me scrambling to the doctor for tests.
I haven't ever had a cancerous growth, but my doctor seems to think that my chances are pretty good. I never wore sunscreen growing up, although now I slather it on like it's water from the fountain of youth.
Think that the risk of skin cancer is overblown? Well, check out this article from the National Cancer Institute:
Women who use tanning beds more than once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than one million people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer in the United States every year. In fact, non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the country. Forty to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have this form of skin cancer at least once. These are startling statistics for a cancer that can, for the most part, be prevented.
I’m not just being a mean old lady when I try to convince younger women that tanning is a bad idea. I don’t object to tan skin – I just think that we’ll all be a lot happier, in the long run, if we get it out of a bottle than on a towel or in a booth. So if you are considering some time burning your hide for the sake of fashion, I beg of you, consider some of the new and excellent tans-in-a-bottle out there. They're cheap, they moisturize your skin, and you'll be thanking yourself when you arrive at your 35th high school reunion looking younger than everyone else (except, perhaps, the members of the Science Olympiad).
Sunless tanning options that won't give you skin cancer:
Also, do spend some time browsing here, if you are still pondering the tanning booth: http://www.melanoma.com/
I understand the draw of tanning, I really do. It feels good - the heat, the sun-blushed skin. I get all that. But trust me, once you see your sun-damaged skin through the doctor's lighted magnifying glass, all of those days basking on the beach or scorching in a booth won't count for squat. Let's find a better way to relax, a bottled way to bronze, and look forward to a future free of frightening freckles.