Until the advent of spray tanning and sunless tanning products, the phrase "healthy tan" was a bit of a contradiction in terms. Tanning with ultraviolet (UV) radiation, whether it comes from the sun or from an indoor tanning bed, is dangerous. Period. So why do 10% of Americans still visit tanning salons?
UV radiation causes premature skin aging, but if you tan, that's the least of your concerns. Tanning indisputably increases the risk of skin cancer, including deadly melanoma. The incidence of melanomas diagnosed at a more advanced stage is on the rise, and researchers believe indoor tanning is to blame. These advanced cancers are lethal: Only 15 percent of melanoma patients with distant metastases (meaning that the cancer has spread beyond lymph nodes in the region) survive five years past their diagnosis.
We've all heard the half-baked arguments. Some people think only childhood sunburns are dangerous. If you had a few bad childhood sunburns, they argue, why bother to protect yourself now? The damage has been done. And if you didn't have any, you're home free now, they reason. But the danger of tanning is dose related and cumulative—that is, the more UV radiation you're exposed to over a period of time, the higher your cancer risk. Many European Union countries have already begun to regulate the use of tanning beds, and the United States is considering such legislation.
Another harebrained argument is that using a tanning bed gives you a so-called base tan that allows you to avoid sunburn. But research indicates that any radiation is dangerous, whether its source is the UVA rays that tan the skin or the UVB rays that burn it.
So what's a sun goddess to do? Don't use tanning beds or lamps. Avoid the sun, particularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing. And if you've just gotta have that Jersey Shore glow, try a spray tan. The same chemical, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), is used whether you get airbrushed in a salon or apply the spray at home. Because DHA is a color additive, the safety of the agent has been reviewed and approved by the FDA. DHA is also used in sunless tanning lotions, mousses, bronzers, and moisturizers. Whether you pay big bucks for them at a department store cosmetics counter or buy them on the cheap at a drug store is up to you.