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Sun tans not worth the risk of melanoma

By Michelle Anjirbag
On April 17, 2012

The sun returned to Storrs, and students are worshiping the warm weather wherever they can. But, as appealing as a day out in the grass may be, we all need to make sure we protect our skin.

Now, I've spent years outdoors without fearing the sun. I never wore sunscreen, and I've spent hours each summer day swimming and hiking. I have only tanned, becoming more golden rather than ever burning. I laughed at Baz Luhrmann's odd speech/ambient music hit that contained the monotone message: "wear sunscreen." But a few summers ago, while working at camp, by mid-afternoon my shoulders were black instead of tan, and painful to touch. I have made a point of wearing sunscreen ever since.

We live in a society where golden and bronzed skin is equated with beauty and health, where the actuality is that the lengths people go to in order to look a certain way cause more detriment and risk to their health and wellness. No matter what people look like, or how rarely they may burn, it is still possible to contract skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in this country. The annual diagnosis rate sits at 3.5 million occurrences in over 2 million people. This statistic is higher than the new occurrence rate of breast, prostate, colon and lung cancers. While there is a movement within the tanning industry purporting that a base tan will help protect people from the harmful burns associated with skin damage, a 1981 study by Cripps proved that a tan only offered protection equivalent to SPF 2-3. The minimum protection needed against potential sunburn is SPF 15. What is also left unsaid is that tanning, even before burning, has proven to contribute to DNA damage, which in turn reduces the skin's ability to repair and protect itself. This skin damage leads to more advanced signs of aging, such as fine lines, spots, sagging and wrinkles; instead of making oneself more attractive, tanning merely makes one look older, faster, and increases the risks of negative affects on one's health. Given enough damage and UV exposure, genetic damage becomes cancerous tumors.

The tanning craze began in the 1960's with Brigitte Bardot, and with it, the flouting of a traditional ideal of beauty that centered around sun-avoidance. Tanned, weathered skin was for people who had to work in the sun, not for people who could afford to spend their time pursuing indoor leisurely pastimes. The sun-devotion that has become the staple of our ideal image of beauty needs to change. Though some celebrities have turned away from tanning, there needs to be a greater effort to turn away from such a harmful behavior. While spray tans and fake-bronzers are a substitute - and still require sunscreen to be used with them - they still promote an unhealthy ideal of beauty. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Elle and Seventeen do frequently write about the dangers of tanning beds, but when those pieces are followed by advice on how to look sun-kissed, it defeats the purpose.

There is nothing attractive about being obviously seven shades more orange than is found in the natural world. There is also nothing attractive about harming one's health. We don't eat poison. We wouldn't elect to saw off our own limbs. We actively choose as a society to end promoting unsafe behavior in every area of our lives. But we still don't choose to change an ideal that actively causes skin cancer. By all means, enjoy the warmth, the outdoors and the sunshine. But also realize that the sun is becoming more intense. Put on the sunscreen; having a little more color is not worth the health risks.  

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