Student Life Editor
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “beauty” as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”
Simply put, as Albert Einstein famously said, “Beauty is skin deep.”
Around springtime every year, one controllable aspect of beauty is kicked into high gear: skin color. With the ability to manipulate one’s skin color through the natural sun, indoor tanning and lotions, America’s obsession with being tan takes the spotlight as winter fades into warmer months. A darker color is the sunbather’s goal, and over-achieving sunbathers found a way around lying on the beach for hours on end. Their solution: indoor tanning. Indoor tanning allows for a quick, controlled concentration of UV-A and UV-B rays to reach the skin. But just as quickly as one’s skin begins to glow bronze, the risks outweigh the benefits. Sharon Miller works for the Food and Drug Administration and is a scientist and “international expert” on UV radiation and tanning.
In an article for the FDA, Miller stated a tan is the skin’s reaction to UV rays. She said the skin’s transition to a darker color is its way of showing how the skin has been “insulted.” She explained, “The skin acts in self-defense by producing more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin. Over time, this damage will lead to prematurely aged skin, and in some cases skin cancer.” The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics stated in their March 2013, Volume 131 issue, that approximately 3.5 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed in the United States annually. It also states with increased UV radiation exposure from artificial tanning devices, the incidences of non-melanoma skin cancers has doubled among young adults in the U.S.
According to the Journal of Pediatrics melanoma was the third most common cancer diagnosed among adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 39 in 2012. Women had a 69 percent higher risk of melanoma compared to men.
“This greater melanoma risk among women coincided with increased tanning bed use among female adolescents, who consistently reported more frequent indoor tanning than male adolescents,” the journal states.
In 2013, the Food & Drug Administration stated the risk of melanoma of the skin increased by 75 percent for an individual who tanned artificially indoors. This means one visit—not five, not ten– increases one’s cancer risk by 75 percent. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the indoor tanning industry reached an estimated revenue of $2.6 billion in 2010. The AAD also adds that on an average day in the United States, more than one million people tan in tanning salons; 70 percent of these tanning patrons were Caucasian girls and women, primarily aged 16 to 29 years. Annually, nearly 28 million people tan indoors in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimated that 67,250 new melanoma cases in the U.S. would be diagnosed in the year 2012. With research proving cancer risks, and even eye damage from indoor tanning, the issue goes beyond the physical and into the emotional and mental drive behind one’s decision to put him or herself in such danger, said Tiffany Mathews, Health and Wellness coordinator for KSC. Mathews said tanning comes back to the issue of defining beauty. She said the matter is bigger than the KSC population.
“I think the issue is that our society puts a lot of emphasis on appearances, on looks and I think that being tan is one of the many attributes that are seen as attractive,” she said. Mathews said magazines, movies and videos contribute to this obsession. “Being tan might hide certain things—it might hide the actual attributes that people have naturally,” she said. Paige Agresti, a KSC freshman, said she regularly tans indoors when she is home on school breaks. “It helps my skin with acne,” she said, “I’ve heard the vitamin D helps, too. I just like the look of it.” Agresti said she is aware of the cancer risks with indoor tanning. “It worries me a lot, but I’ve never gotten badly burned from it,” she said. But as research states, exposure, whether it’s a burn or not, is enough to cause potentially fatal damage.
Sophomore Alexandra Levinsky said she has used indoor tanning beds and said indoor tanning is “addicting.” Levinsky said she tanned before a trip to Australia with the goal of getting a “base tan.”
The idea behind a base tan is this: get a tan before hitting the real sun and you won’t burn as badly. “The sun is stronger in Australia than here [in New Hampshire],” she said, “So I got a base tan. I know you’ll get skin cancer no matter what,” she continued, “Some people are willing to sacrifice going to a tanning salon so they don’t have to burn.”
Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D. debunked the idea of a base tan. He said, “Tanning under the sun or a sunlamp gives protection that is equivalent to a sun protection factor [SPF] of 4 or less, which translates into a little extra time in the sun before you start to burn.” Some students said the benefits do not outweigh the risk. Senior Annie Dintino said skin cancer runs in her family. “I’m neurotic about sunblock in the summer,” she said. Similarly, freshman Eric Mealey said he has had a family member who was sick from cancer. “I hate it,” he said, “It can be okay in moderation, but going tanning just to look more brown is a no.” Mealey said in the summer he wears an SPF 50 sunblock to protect his skin. One student said she thinks she has established a safe tanning routine, being aware of the risks. Junior Caitlin Boyle said she goes on vacation every year and tans indoors to achieve her “base tan,” just as Levinsky suggested. “Once I didn’t go tanning before and I got burned,” she said. Boyle said she always puts on sunscreen when she tans.
“I don’t want to get skin cancer,” she explained, “But I don’t like looking pale—I look sick.” Boyle said the skin cancer risks are “scary,” but that she relies on her use of sunscreen to keep her safe. Boyle credited the intake of vitamin D from the sun and tanning as a benefit. She said, “Tanning makes you feel better. It’s the vitamin D—it gives you more energy.”
Boyle raises two key points in the discussion of sun tanning. First, the intake of vitamin D. According to The U.S. Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, individuals under the age of 50 years need approximately 200 international units, (IU) of Vitamin D per day.
This equals 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure. Kathleen Zelman, RD, explained Vitamin D’s role as an absorber of calcium, which in turn helps maintain bone density. Vitamin D can be absorbed through indoor tanning because UV-B rays trigger the synthesis of vitamin D.
The second issue Boyle raised considers the examination of sunscreen versus sunblock. The Department of Dermatology at University of California-San Francisco states sunscreen as a “screen” which protects the skin from UV-A rays.
Sunblock literally blocks the sun, reflecting UV-A rays. The department also explained the theory behind SPF. The website states: “A user can determine how long their sunblock will be effective by multiplying the SPF factor by the length of time it takes for him or her to suffer a burn without sunscreen.” The UCSF recommended using sunblock with an SPF of at least 30 with frequent application.
Mathews reiterated that some sun exposure is healthy and okay. She stated the issue as not being one of lack of research or knowledge, but rather a misperception and lack of thought among students.
Mathews said college students tend to fall under the mindset that if everyone’s doing it, it’s okay. She argued that not all 5,000 KSC students are visiting tanning salons.
“I just wonder if it’s one of those things that the perception is everyone is going, but is the reality that everyone’s going? I would highly doubt it. Students’ perception about many things are off,” she said.
The bottom line: the sun can kill. Indoor tanning can kill. There’s no way around it. Sun exposure, indoor or out, will lead to the damaging of the skin and can ultimately lead to cancer. Research and fact are proof.
Mathews stated, “I think that we have to stop thinking that we’re invincible. We need to stop thinking we’re invincible and thinking about the things we’re doing, and is that a good representation of yourself. Are you willing? Is it worth the risk?”
Einstein said, “Beauty is skin deep.” But sun damaged skin goes beyond that outer layer. In a society that believes beauty is pain, 30 million Americans prove that most times, they are willing to take that risk.
Julie Conlon can be contacted at