Fashion and Health: Resisting the Allure of a Tan

In the spring, much like tulips, body tanning supplies burst forth on store shelves promising to enhance your tan, extend your tan or provide a sunless tan. While sporting tanned skin continues to be interpreted as a sign of health and is considered a component of our culture’s ideal appearance, the fact remains that adopting this fashionable behavior poses a significant risk to one’s health. Over one million cases of skin cancer are reported annually, a number that continues to increase at a rate of between 3% and 4% a year.

Ultraviolet Radiation

The sun emits three different types of ultraviolet radiation, two of of which are relevant to tanning: UVA and UVB. UVA radiation can produce tanning after a few minutes; UVB radiation produces a tan that appears several days after exposure and can last for weeks. Over exposure to both forms of radiation can lead to skin cancer in all skin types.

“Evidence suggests that people are well aware of the dangers of sun tanning and the use of tanning beds and booths.”

The Research

Evidence suggests that people are well aware of the dangers of sun tanning and the use of tanning beds and booths. So why do so many continue to purposely tan their skin? This was the question posed by Jay Yoo and Hye-Young Kim, researchers at Baylor University and the University of Minnesota, and Alexandra Howell and Ann Paulins, researchers at Ohio University. Yoo and Kim found that in addition to the belief that having a tan increases physical attractiveness, they found that tanning was a type of self-pleasure. In fact, women shared that sun tanning was a means to improve both their self-esteem and their body image. Howell and Paulins also found that pleasure was linked particularly to outdoor tanning. Perhaps it is comforting to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin after several long and cold months. Participants in their research credited outdoor tanning with lifting one’s mood and as a major method of relaxation.

So Now What

Given these stated benefits, what can be done to curb our desire for tanned skin? Maybe nothing, but we can be a little smarter about what we do when we are in the sun: wear sunscreen, spend some time in the shade when outdoors, avoid sun exposure during the warmest parts of the day and if you have to work in the sun, wear protective clothing. Nowadays, there are many companies that offer sun protective clothing including swimwear

By Kim Johnson, PhD

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