Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Separating Fact from Fairy Tale:
Princess Pale & the Quest for
the Magical Golden Base Tan.

I have a confession to make, now that I've told you how dangerous tanning beds are.

::deep breath::

I myself have partaken of beds and booth. But wait-I was going to Mexico, it was just a few times...I was young, and peer-pressured, OK?

All jokes aside, the reason I did it traces back to one of the biggest tanning myths of all: that of the coveted "base tan". You know the story. Princess Pale goes on vacation, burns lobster red, and spends the entire trip in the hotel room, blistered and wallowing in pain. Of course, so the story goes, all of this could be prevented if Miss Pale had just been blessed with the coveted "base tan". The idea is that, with moderate tanning you can "build" color without damaging your skin and that this color will protect you from burning, since dark skin doesn't burn as easily.

While there may be some truth to this myth, there are two big problems with the story as it's usually told. The first is that there is no healthy tan. When skin confronts UV radiation, it releases melanin as protection- this is what darkens the skin into what we call a "tan". What this means is that by the time you see ANY color on your skin, it's already been damaged.

So, it is true that melanin helps to protect skin, and since deeper skin has more melanin present, it doesn't burn as easily. This is the root of the base tan myth, and it often lures people into a false sense of security. In reality, experts agree that the amount of protection received from a tan is equal to NO MORE than an SPF 4. Surely not enough to protect anyone out for more than an hour or so. Combine that with the fact that many people trying the base tan method are doing so for a vacation in tropical climates with stronger, more direct sun, and you have a recipe for disaster.

So how did my personal base tan experiment work out? Well, thankfully, I knew there was no way a little tan could protect me from the intense Mexican sun, so I slathered on the SPF. Right up until the last day of vacation, when I figured that, surely after a week in the beds and another on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, I could survive one day sans-sunscreen. Verdict: blisters on the tops of my thighs do not make for a comfy flight home!

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