Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
“Your ancestors lived in dungeons,” the dermatologist said, without an inkling of humor.
I was laying fully naked with my back against a cold metal exam table. He held one of my ankles with two hands, squinting closely at a mole on my calf.
I was 23 and fresh off a three-month trip to Nicaragua where I’d been working as a surf instructor. I’d been cautious of the sun but I still came back with stark tan lines, my freckled body nowhere near its normal pallor.
At the end of the appointment, after I’d redressed, he looked at me with sympathy and exasperation. “Your skin can’t handle the amount of sun you’re exposing it to,” he said.
I can’t remember what I said back, but I’m sure it was tempered with youthful arrogance. I’d grown up surfing, immersed in the culture. Being tan was just a part of life.
That day, I was still too stubborn to admit my relationship with the sun was deeply troubling. But I was on the precipice of a larger shift in my mindset. At 23, I was finally beginning to understand that I alone was responsible for my health.
Which is what led me to book the aforementioned appointment with the dermatologist to have my many moles checked — the first in my adult life. And in the four years since, I’ve transitioned — unenthusiastically at times, I’ll admit — into a fully-reformed tanner.
I got hooked on tanning because of a lack of education, but it persisted due to a stubborn avoidance, if not flat out rejection, of evidence-based facts. So this one goes out to all you tanning fanatics who just can’t quit the habit. When was the last time you asked yourself: Is it really worth the risk?
I grew up tanning alongside my parents who bought into the mass-marketed idea that there’s no beauty without bronze.
As the legend goes, in the 1920s fashion icon Coco Chanel came back from a Mediterranean cruise with a dark tan and sent pop culture, which had pretty much always valued pale complexions, into a frenzy. And Western civilization’s obsession with the tan was born.
In the 50s and 60s, surf culture went mainstream and the tan hype got even more extreme. It wasn’t only beautiful to be tan, it was an ode to the body and a challenge to conservatism. And Southern California, former home to both of my parents, was ground zero.
My dad graduated high school outside of Los Angeles in 1971, the same year a bronzed Malibu Barbie premiered, beach-ready in a bathing suit and sunglasses. And my mom spent summers as a teenager gallivanting around Venice Beach.
If they did use sunscreen or take precautionary sun measures in those days, it was only enough to ward off serious burns — because I’ve seen the photos, and their bodies glowed copper.
However, the obsession with tan skin didn’t end with my parent’s generation. In many ways, it only got worse. The bronzed look remained popular through the 90s and early 2000s, and tanning technology only seemed to get more advanced. Thanks to tanning beds, you didn’t even have to live near a beach.
In 2007, E! released Sunset Tan, a reality show that centered around a tanning salon in LA. In the surf magazines I devoured as a teen, every page showed a different — though inevitably Caucasian — model with browned, impossibly smooth skin.
So I, too, learned to revere that sun-kissed glow. I loved how when my skin was darker, my hair seemed to look blonder. When I was tan, my body even appeared more toned.
Emulating my mom, I’d lay out in our front yard lathered head-to-toe in olive oil, my Anglo-Saxon skin sizzling like a guppy on a skillet. Most of the time, I didn’t even enjoy it. But I endured the sweat and boredom to get results.
I sustained this lifestyle by sticking to a guiding principle: I was safe as long as I didn’t get burned. Skin cancer, I believed, was avoidable as long as I tanned in moderation.
Dr. Rita Linkner is a dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. When it comes to tanning, she’s unequivocal.
“There’s no such thing as a safe way to tan,” she says.
She explains that because sun damage is cumulative, every bit of sun exposure our skin receives increases our risk for skin cancer.
“When UV light hits the surface of the skin it creates free radical species,” she says. “If you accumulate enough free radicals, they start to affect how your DNA replicates. Eventually, the DNA will replicate abnormally and that’s how you get precancerous cells that can, with enough sun exposure, turn into cancerous cells.”
It’s not easy for me to admit this now, but one of the reasons I kept tanning into adulthood was because until a few years ago I harbored skepticism — left over from growing up in a natural ingredients-only household — toward modern medicine.
Essentially, I didn’t want to stop tanning. So I leveraged the vague, unarticulated distrust I felt toward science to create a world that suited me better — a world where tanning wasn’t that bad.
My journey to fully accept modern medicine is a different story, but it was this shift in thinking that accounted for my eventual awakening about the realities of skin cancer. The statistics are just too overwhelming to avoid.
Take for instance, that 9,500 U.S. people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. That’s roughly 3.5 million people a year. In fact, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined and almost 90 percent of all skin cancers are caused by sun exposure.
While many forms of skin cancer can be thwarted by early intervention, melanoma accounts for around 20 deaths a day in the United States. “Of all the deadly types of cancer, melanoma is high up on that list,” says Linkner.
When I read down the list of risk factors for developing skin cancer, I’m able to check off most of the boxes: blue eyes and blond hair, a history of sunburns, lots of moles.
While Caucasian people have the highest risk of developing all types of skin cancer, they also have the best rate of survival. According to one study, people of African American descent were
four times more likelyto receive a melanoma diagnosis after it had progressed to a life-threatening stage. It’s imperative that regardless of ethnicity or phenotype you have your body checked regularly (Linkner suggests once a year) for precancerous and cancerous growths.
For me, perhaps the scariest stat is that exactly one blistering sunburn as a child or teen
I honestly can’t say how many blistering sunburns I got as a kid but it’s a lot more than one.
Often times, this information can overwhelm me. After all, I can’t do anything about the uninformed choices I made as a young person. Linkner assures me, however, that it’s not too late to turn things around.
“If you start correcting [skin care] habits, even at the age of 30, you can really limit your chance of getting skin cancer later in life,” she says.
“Depending on what your skin type is, the sweet spot is somewhere between 30 and 50 SPF,” says Linkner. “If you’re blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and freckly, go with a 50 SPF. And, ideally, you’re applying 15 minutes before sun exposure.”
She also suggests using physical blocker sunscreens — products where the active ingredient is either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — over chemical sunscreen.
“[Physical blockers] are a way of completely reflecting the UV light off the surface of the skin as opposed to absorbing it into the skin,” she says. “And if you’re allergy-prone or have eczema you’re much better off using the physical blockers.”
In addition to daily sunscreen use, I’ve become a zealot about wearing hats.
As a kid I abhorred hats because my mom was always plopping some mangled straw thing on my head. But as a newly-sun conscious person, I’ve come to respect the value of a good hat. I feel more secure, even if I’m also wearing sunscreen, knowing my face is shielded from direct sunlight.
The Australian government lists wearing a wide-brimmed hat as an important preventive measure in limiting sun exposure. (Although, they emphasize the necessity of also wearing sunscreen as skin still absorbs indirect sunlight.)
On those rare days when I do get stuck out and about without a hat or sunscreen, I inevitably wake up the next day and look in the mirror and think “Why do I look so good today?” Then I realize: Oh, I’m tan.
I haven’t lost my superficiality or the-tanner-the-better mindset in that regard. I’ll probably always prefer how I look when I’m a little bronzed.
But for me, part of transcending adolescence — a mindset that can last much longer than an actual age — is taking a sober and rational approach to my health.
I may not have had the right information as a kid, but I have it now. And honestly, there’s something deeply empowering about taking action in order to make a positive change in my life. I like to think of it as a way of honoring the inconceivable good fortune I have at being alive at all.
Ginger Wojcik is an assistant editor at Greatist. Follow more of her work on Medium or follow her on Twitter.