“Because tan fat looks better than white fat.”
That’s my 30-year-old daughter, justifying her recent trip to the tanning salon. Yes, she knew it caused wrinkles. Yes, she knew it was linked to skin cancer. But she heeded not a single warning—either from me as a concerned mother, still nagging after all these years, or as a medical reporter who sees the data over and over.
My most recent eye-opener came last week at the WONCA World Conference of Family Physicians, where Dr. Tina Ninan said it plainly: When it comes to tanning, vanity is queen. Dr. Ninan, a general practice physician in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, wanted to find out how much patients know about sunbeds and their associated risks.
She distributed simple surveys to patients waiting at a dermatology clinic at the University Hospital of North Durham. Most of the respondents were women, with 60% over age 40. Of the 102 patients surveyed, 34 said they used sunbeds. Most of these (27) were women, meaning that 42% of the women surveyed admitted to using the devices. But they weren’t alone—18% of men surveyed said they used sunbeds, too.
Almost 90% of the tanners said they’d started using sunbeds before 35, a period considered critical in the development of skin cancer risk. Forty percent used them at least weekly, and many used them without any supervision, favoring either coin-operated sunbeds or home-use models. These people were not ignorant; 94% said they were aware of a link between sunbed use and skin cancer. They wrote in other risks as well: “it’s bad for your skin.” “They cause wrinkles” “They are bad for your eyes.”
But apparently the lure of a tan is too strong to resist. The majority (64%) said they used sunbeds for cosmetic reasons, either they were trying to get a base tan before holiday or they just “liked the look of a tan.” Fourteen percent said they were trying to treat a skin condition with ultraviolet light; acne and rosacea topped that list.
A recent study that found sunbed tanning as addicting as alcohol. Published in the Archives of Dermatology, the study used two validated addiction questionnaires to qualify sunbed use among 421 women at a northeast U.S. university. More than half of the women were “users.” When using the DSM-IV addiction criteria, 39% scored as addicts. The CAGE (Cut down, Annoyed, Guilty, Eye-opener) Questionnaire determined that 90% were addicted. “Users” also had significantly more anxiety and greater use of alcohol, marijuana, and other substances than non-users.
So what’s a white girl to do? Spray-on tans are becoming increasingly popular, as are pills containing beta carotene or canthaxathin, a natural food colorant. A quick Google search also delivers plenty of results for pills that claim to stimulate melanin production. I found just one product currently under scientific review. Clinuvel, an Australian drug company, is developing what it calls a “photoprotective drug” (afamelanotide), marketed under the name Scenesse. A form of alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone, afamelanotide is being investigated for prophylaxis of photosensitive disorders, not for any cosmetic indications. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination, however, to wonder whether it could become—literally—the Golden Child of the self-tanning set.
In the meantime, I’ll keep preaching the gospel of high SPF to all my children, and try to follow my own advice. I came back from the WONCA meeting Cancun with a little glow myself, and—although I hate to admit it—I loved the way it looked.
—Michele G. Sullivan (@MGSullivan on Twitter)