On Tanning: A Conflicted Soul

I love a good tan. Not the fake stuff; the lightest coating makes me feel like Snooki (and smell like her too, probably). No, I need to brown myself in real sunshine. And yes, I understand this is bad.

I should know better. If I lean close enough to the mirror, I can see some very fine lines. A good friend got melanoma while we were in our mid-20s. Once, during a particularly sun-worshippy summer, I had a weirdly sensitive mole (that, upon my over-inspection, started to bleed), and I freaked out: That's it, I've finally done it: I tanned myself into melanoma, I'm never going outside again. But as soon as my dermatologist assured me I was fine, there I was, right back on the beach. And I only started wearing daily moisturizer with SPF 15 in the past year.

Scolding me is useless; I am irrationally convinced of my safety and deeply in denial of the dangers. I don't really burn much, and I love my darkened skin even though I know it's stupid and short-sighted. But to me, a good tan means less makeup, less-visible spider veins, and less seasonal affective disorder. I feel better about myself. Even if it's terrible for my health. I am conflicted, maybe a bit messed up — but I am not alone.

Making me feel a bit less terrible about this is Wall Street Journal columnist Melinda Beck, who writes about the contradictions of being a health columnist who loves her tan and sunshine. She knows as much as anyone how dangerous it is, and yet she can't help herself. She knows what I'm talking about when I say that the warmth of sun on my face is one of the happiest feelings I know, and I'm not sure I'll ever be willing to give it up.

But these days, sitting in the sun makes me feel guilty as well. A health columnist with a tan? Shameful.

Most dermatologists advise never to step outside without sunscreen and they say it's not enough just to guard against UVB rays, the kind that cause burns. It's the longer, less intense UVA rays that accelerate aging — and those even penetrate cloud and glass windows. We also need specially made protective clothing.

Is all this protection really necessary, even for skin types like mine that tan easily?

The answer is, of course, yes — yes the protection is necessary, yes we should be sitting in the shade, yes we should be slathering SPF all over our exposed flesh. Which both Beck and I do, but she uses the strong stuff with self-tanner added, whereas I draw the line at basic SPF 15 (who am I to keep the lord's sweet sunshine from doing its work?).

The Skin Cancer Foundation has, in recent years, acknowledged that it's hard to convince everyone to avoid the joy of sun-warmed skin, and so they've changed their message from "Avoid the Sun" to "Seek the Shade" — which is a bit less admonishing, and therefore more likely to reach people. Dr. Steven Wang, the director of dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, elaborates: "I think most of my colleagues would say, 'Enjoy the sun in moderation.' That does not mean it's a good idea to lay half-naked on the beach for five hours." But I want to get the most out of a trip!

After doing enough research to convince herself that she really needs to curb her habit, Beck decides that she'll continue to sit in the sun, though she'll "try to make it before 10 or after 4." But that's the best time for getting sun!

Next up: Live-blogging the day when my dermatologist gives me the bad news.

Sun-Kissed or Sunburned? [WSJ]

Image: Aleksandar Todorovic via Shutterstock