Tue, Jun 09, 2009 - Page 16 News List

[ HEALTH ] The light and dark sides of tanning

Is it possible to achieve a healthy glow that’s truly healthy?

By Jane E. Brody  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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“You’ve been in the sun,” a woman remarked when she saw me last month, a hint of disapproval in her voice.

“No,” I was pleased to be able to reply. “I just use a tinted face cream and makeup to match.”

You see, I’ve learned my lesson, sort of. I’ve had four precancers (medically, actinic keratoses) removed from my face in recent years, the consequence of decades of unprotected exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. From my teens through my 30s, I devoted hours to baking in the summer sun coated with baby oil, not sunscreen.

So far I’ve been fortunate — no skin cancers yet and minimal facial wrinkles at age 68. But I decided awhile back not to push my luck. I would rather not be the one in six Americans who eventually develops skin cancer. So I apply a facial moisturizer with sunscreen several times a day, and in spring through fall I minimize my time in the midday sun. I also wear sunglasses with full UV protection both for comfort and to protect against cataracts.

But I admit to two failings. Despite the admonitions of my dermatologist, who gives his patients guidelines called “Confessions of a Pale Dermatologist,” I don’t wear hats even though I know I should don one with a 10cm brim when walking or working outdoors. And I still love that tan look.

Now, though, I can acquire a summery glow far more safely from a tube.

ATTITUDES ABOUT TANS

A walk through pharmacy aisles attests to the popularity of two kinds of products: potent full-spectrum sunscreens that protect against cancer-causing sunburn and wrinkled leathery skin, and artificial tanning lotions, creams and sprays. When used correctly, these tanning products can safely provide natural-looking color (not the orange tinge of products past) without the risks of UV radiation.

Sunless tanning products are hot sellers despite the push of some fashionistas, like Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, who insists that the bronzed look “is very ’80s porno star, unhealthy and kind of sleazy.” In the current issue of The Skin Cancer Foundation Journal, Doonan cites examples like Tilda Swinton, Michelle Obama and Lucy Liu to show that what is now in fashion is “healthy, natural glowing skin” — the “color you were born with.”

Still, a summer tan seems to be coveted by many Westerners, whose values spread easily to others. Despite the traditionally prized porcelain skin of Asian cultures, in a survey of 546 Asian Americans published last month in The Archives of Dermatology, Emily Gorell and colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine found that the more westernized the respondents, the more positive their attitudes toward tanning and sunbathing, and the more negative toward the use of sun protection.

And according to a 2006 report in Pediatrics, only minimal progress has been made in persuading American teenagers to adopt sun-protective behaviors.

In two nationally representative surveys, conducted in 1998 and 2004, Vilma Cokkinides, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, and colleagues found that in both years, about 70 percent of teenagers reported having been sunburned during the summer. There was a significant decrease in sunburns among younger teenagers and an overall increase (to 39 percent from 31 percent) in those who said they regularly used sunscreen. But there was little change in time spent outdoors during the peak sun hours of 10am to 4pm and an increase in days spent at the beach.

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