It’s not a complete shocker to hear about people partaking in behaviors that they know are unhealthy. (Fried food, caffeine, or beer bongs, anyone?) Still, the idea of tanning — actively lying out in the sun — seems a particularly retro and risky choice in 2016, since melanoma is such a deadly form of cancer. But according to a new American Academy of Dermatology survey, people are still going after that “healthy glow,” even though they know there’s no such thing.
A whopping 98 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34 who tan understand that skin cancer can be deadly, the survey found — and 71 percent of the women know that the idea of a “healthy tan” is a fallacy. Further, 66 percent of women surveyed know that getting a base tan is not an effective way to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
“Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is the second most common cancer in young women, and we believe this may be due in part to their tanning habits. It is alarming that young women are continuing to tan even though they’re aware of the danger,” notes dermatologist Elizabeth S. Martin, chair of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) Council on Communications, in a press release about the findings. “Exposure to UV radiation, whether it’s from the sun or an indoor tanning device, is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. Women need to take their knowledge and turn it into action by protecting themselves from the sun and staying out of tanning beds.”
A new PSA from the AAD called “Arms” (below), which shows two friends comparing tans over the years until one winds up in the hospital with a stage-3 melanoma diagnosis, attempts to communicate the risk factors to folks who just can’t stop tanning.
So where’s the disconnect?
As Kasey Lynn Morris, a Ph.D. in social psychology about to start her post as a researcher with the National Cancer Institute, tells Yahoo Beauty, “Identity and self-esteem concerns are a very important motivation in health behaviors” — even more important than health itself. In other words: Being healthy is one thing, but if looking tan (or, more positively, eating healthily or exercising) makes you feel better about yourself, then it will likely win out.
Morris, who spent time researching sun tanning in the face of skin-cancer threats while she was a student at the University of South Florida, explains that tanning, in particular, may be an even harder nut to crack than, say, smoking. “Smoking has become something where people say, ‘Eww, smoking is gross,’ and so you don’t want to be the type of person who smokes,” she explains. “But for women especially, appearance is a prime source of self-esteem, so there’s that competing motivation of being healthy but also having that ‘healthy glow.’”
For perpetuating the myth that a tan is healthy, we can thank, for starters, Coco Chanel, who apparently turned the pre-Industrial Revolution idea of a leisure-class pallor on its head in the 1920s by accidentally getting too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise. Photographs of her made the sun-kissed look chic, and tanning became aspirational, a symbol of wealth and leisure. Even though that idea has been ever-so-slowly tamped down since the 1980s, when sunscreens with higher SPFs were introduced, it’s been a tough one to fight.
A quick and unscientific Facebook poll for this article, asking those who like to get tan why they do it when they know it’s unsafe, brought in the following responses: “It’s another addiction that’s hard to break,” “Makes me feel better to be nice and tan — and makes my teeth look whiter,” and “I just think I look healthier.”
Barbara Greenberg, a Connecticut-based psychologist, tells Yahoo Beauty, “My sense is that people feel like it’s a very quick way to look refreshed and like they’ve just been on vacation. Like Botox and other quick fixes,” she says, “it certainly takes on an addictive quality. Men and women seem to become equally addicted. They also feel like it makes them look younger, and associate tans with youth.”
The youth factor is a big influence, Martin tells Yahoo Beauty. “Unfortunately, I think some women (and men) continue to tan because they see the immediate results of the tan but do not consciously recognize the risk of skin cancer they will face in the future. Young people often see skin cancer as a disease of older people,” she says, whereas melanoma is the second most common cancer in women ages 15 to 29. “Many young women still use indoor tanning beds, unfortunately, and using indoor tanning devices before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 59 percent, with the risk increasing with each use.”
Martin says she often hears patients say they only tan for special occasions, or before a vacation, but she aims to warn them all the same. “I remind them that tanning in any way is damaging the DNA in their cells,” she says. “I quote the statistics. I tell them about one of my first patients who had an invasive melanoma at age 19 and how frightening that was for that patient and that family. … I often also tell them that while they may feel like this tan makes them look great for this prom, or this vacation, if they choose not to tan and choose to protect their skin, they will look better than everyone else at their class reunions! Many times each day, I say, ‘You will thank me when you are 40. I promise.’”