Don’t bake in cancer; get a tan airbrushed on

Published in the Dallas Morning News, Friday, June 11, 2010 by Jacquielynn Floyd

Let’s talk about your hide. That’s the two square yards, more or less, of epidermal upholstery that covers you, accounting for about 10 percent of your total mass. Some people show more of it than others, but it’s generally your body’s most visible organ.

I’m bringing this up because doctors and researchers are putting heavy effort into turning tanning into the new smoking. On July 1, a new nationwide 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services takes effect as part of the health care overhaul.

Some states that have already limited teen access to tanning salons are considering even more stringent measures.

The scenario is startlingly reminiscent of the anti-tobacco revolution — with doctors sounding the warnings, politicians taking up the banner and an industry on the defensive, insisting that indoor tanning actually carries health benefits.

“It’s at least as good for you as it is bad for you,” the owner of a New York salon plaintively told CNN last week.

Nuts, dermatologists rudely counter: “The only purpose of a tanning salon is to give you a blast of a carcinogen,” Allan Halpern, vice present of the Skin Cancer Foundation, told .U.S. News & World Report.

Like a lot of women, I learned the hard way. Descended from people who inhabited the damp bogs and coal mines of Western Europe (“Where ‘white’ met “bread,'” quipped somebody on a TV show) I am genetically incapable of acquiring a suntan. But as a teenager, I denied this obvious reality, purposely barbecuing myself beneath the remorseless Texas summer sun with feverish deliberation. I would burn — sometimes blister — then shed ruined skin like a reptile.

In my 20s, I got skin cancer, a mean little node that had to be excised from the side of my neck, leaving a pale, indented scar at about the location of that bolt that holds Frankenstein’s head on. The dermatologist told me to expect a recurrence.

Still — and you don’t have to tell me how obtuse this is — I have never lost that wistful, girly yearning for a smooth, brownish-gold sorority-sister tan, something about the shade of a perfectly cooked pancake.

It carries the allure of impractical, unobtainable luxury, like a handbag that costs a week’s salary. It’s a scrap of irrational frippery that even the smartest and most sensible women in this fashion-conscious city grasp, something wired into our culture.

After considerable reflection, I decided to try having a fake tan professionally applied. This is not a routine decision for me, since I don’t really appreciate the whole “spa” experience. Friends tell me how “relaxing” and “restful” it all is, but if the goal is simply to do nothing, I can do that at home for free.

Plus, there’s little doubt that, just as I was settling in beneath a $200 crust of slow-drying mineral mud with a cucumber slice pasted over each eyelid, somebody would shout that there was a gas leak and everybody had to get out of the building.

But I summoned my nerve to get an “airbrush” tan. It was kind of like getting your car painted. The paint was applied by a friendly and competent young woman, who cheerily assured me that her clientele ranges in age from about 13 to 85. She did not mock my middle-aged body or discount-store bathing suit.

And for about a week, I had the best tan of my life, a surprisingly authentic cafe-au-lait dye job that my poor bog-bred genes could never have supplied on their own. I drove home perched forward on the edge of the car seat, trying to protect the tan for as long as possible.

Gradually, but inevitably, it faded. I don’t have the time or the money to make this a regular habit, but it’s a nice bit of foolish vanity to squirrel away for special occasions.

Until skin the color of a porcelain bathroom fixture makes a comeback, I’ll be out of fashion. It’s nice to know that if I really want a tan, I know how to get one.

For me and a lot of other people, though, it’s a shame it took so long to figure out how not to get one.

Q&A Dermatologist’s tips on saving our skin

Skin cancers, particularly melanomas, are no joke, says Dr. Rebecca Euwer of Dermatology Consultants of Dallas. Euwer, also an associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says exposure to the ultraviolet rays emitted by indoor tanning devices has been linked to a dramatic increase in risk.

Q. So, is there any such thing as a “safe tan”?
A. Sure, you can get the spray-on tans. That’s what a lot of the models are doing now, because they don’t want to shorten their careers. I let my (daughter get a spray tan before her prom. I was fine with that.

Q. How do you convince patients, especially young women, they’re risking something that may not happen until decades from now?
A. l try to scare ’em. I’ve seen melanomas in relatively young women. One, in her early 20s, had been tanning since she was 13. She had a brown freckle on her cheek that she tried to remove with laser treatments. When it didn’t work, I did a biopsy, and it was cancerous. Now we’ll have to create a big scar there. I had a 25-year-old — I found one on her scalp. Ten years later, she was dead.

Q. Will the culture ever reach the point where having a tan no longer seems glamorous or desirable, as happened with smoking?
A. I think it can change; it’ll have to come from Hollywood. We’re starting to see paler models in the fashion magazines — culturally, it will probably have to be the vanity aspect that changes it.

Q. Should people be concerned about less dangerous forms of skin cancer, like basal cell carcinomas?
A. That’s kind of like rust, flaking off the finish on your car. You still have to take care of them. And tell me this: Do you want to end up with a bunch of scars all over your face?

Jacquielynn Floyd