The healthiest way to get a summer tan? Spray it on, say dermatologists.
Dr. Bruce Brod, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and legislative coordinator for the Pennsylvania Academy of Dermatology, says spray-ons seem clinically safe, and, cosmetically, they look much better these days than before, when they often offered an orange glow.
But when it comes to actually tanning the skin — through sunlight or in a booth — which is safer? Natural sunlight contains Ultra Violet Light A and B rays. Sunburns are caused by UVB rays; to minimize burning, tanning booths use mostly UVA light.
However, Dr. Rochelle Weiss, head of the department of dermatology at Bryn Mawr Medical Specialists Association, says that even though it doesn't cause burning, UVA penetrates deeper into the skin and damages the skin's collagen, causing skin to age faster. UVA also suppresses the immune system in the skin that detects and cleans up early skin cancers, she says.
Besides, Brod adds, there's no such thing as a healthy tan: Your skin tans because it's damaged.
This whole discussion has come into focus since the recent national news reports about the Tan Mom — the Nutley, N.J., mother accused by media of taking her young daughter with her to tanning beds, allegations the mother, Patricia Krentcil, rebuffs as untrue, stating that her daughter's sunburn was a result of her swimming while in the sun.
All the publicity put even more focus on the dangers of too much time under the sun or a light: Melanoma is perhaps the most feared result of too much tanning; the skin cancer is particularly le- thal.
How risky? "One person dies from melanoma every hour in the U.S.," notes Dr. William James, vice chair of the dermatology department at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Academy of Dermatology.
It's an increasing problem, and it's increasing the fastest for young women, he adds of the population most often visiting tanning salons.
What to do? For healthy skin, Weiss recommends people stay in the shade, wear protective clothing and apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Reapply sunscreen after sweating and swimming; babies as young as three months can wear sunscreen.
Since many tanners have already been warned of the dangers of staying too long in the sun, Erin McShea, assistant manager of Hollywood Tans in Center City, and Rick Piper, the owner of the 12th Street Gym and Soleil, say that for those who want to tan, salons are a safer alternative. (Piper qualifies that he's not a doctor and that customers should check with their doctors before tanning.)
McShea says some people still come to the salon after even having had skin cancer. So why does the desire to tan persist with the public?
Part of the reason is people think they look better. But it wasn't always this way, James says. Indeed, he notes, it's been well-documented that pale skin used to be a sign of wealth; it meant people didn't work outdoors.
The need to tan didn't take root until the 20th century, he adds, when a tan began to indicate the ability to afford leisure time.
But some countries are doing their best to fight the unhealthy practice. James credits the media in Australia for helping reverse that nation's upward trend in skin cancers.
He cites advertisers there starting to show people on the beach wearing extra clothing under umbrellas instead of bikinis and dark tans, while celebrity media began focusing on the natural coloring of actresses like Aussie Nicole Kidman.
But aren't there some benefits to tanning? The "UV Tanning Tips/Questions" sheet on the website of Sun Myst Tanning Spa of Center City (mysunmyst.com) has a section about how light exposure helps control depression.
It may, according to Dr. Michael Terman, president of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
His article on "The Right Way to Treat Seasonal Depression," which appeared in the Skin Cancer Foundation Journal, details how sunlight does boost one's mood — while he advises that it's boosted by visible light, not invisible UV tanning booth light.
Terman also writes in his new book, Chronotherapy, that tanning either in a booth or on a beach helps people relax — UV radiation stimulates the production of endorphins, and endorphins affect people like opiates. Nevertheless, he states, there are healthier ways to relax.
Truly positive news is that with proper care, the skin begins to repair. But precautions shouldn't be reserved for the summer:
Weiss says applying sunscreen should be part of everyone's daily routine, advising that people put it on exposed skin 20 minutes before going out each and every day.