Death by fake bake

It's official: Indoor tanning beds are toxic. So why do we bronze while Rome burns?

By Lynn Harris
Published July 29, 2009 4:30PM (EDT)

No sooner had I mentioned UV Safety Awareness Month than this came over the death-by-beauty transom: Tanning beds cause cancer.

We knew that, right? Sort of like we knew that water causes wetness? Well, we knew they probably cause cancer. But according to a special report (PDF)  in the new issue of Lancet Oncology, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has moved the cancer warning for tanning beds to DEFCON 1. (Or, shall we say, DEFCANCER.) (And, shall we say, Sarah Palin might want to revisit eBay.)

Specifically: Sunlamps and sunbeds were heretofore classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The IARC will now place them in highest risk category of all -- "carcinogenic to humans," with no "probably" about it -- where they'll share space with arsenic, asbestos, mustard gas, and hello, plutonium.

The group based its decision in part on a review of over 20 studies showing that the risk of skin cancer (cutaneous melanoma) rises by 75 percent when indoor tanning starts before age 30. They found that eye cancer goes up, too, funny little goggles notwithstanding.

The study's authors also say that young women are prime indoor-sun worshippers. (Really young: According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 37 percent of white female adolescents -- and over 11 percent of white male adolescents -- between 13 and 19 years old in the U.S. have used tanning booths.) Showing Category 1 chutzpah, the indoor-tanning industry claims, for one thing, that fake sun is safer since it allows you to control your level of exposure. (I've also heard people repeat the myth that an EZ-bake "base" tan is "safe" because it prevents burning outdoors. Yoik.)

So, crazily, we’re baking while Rome burns. Exposure to UV light -- indoors and out -- is the No. 1 preventable cause of skin cancer. And even as skin cancer rates climb, sunscreen use is falling, despite the valiant efforts of Will Ferrell. 

When the sun or tanning bed beckons, I guess, cancer may seem like an empty, distant threat. We're bombarded with dire health warnings all the time ("Could your cutting board KILL YOU?!" etc., etc.); often it's easier to just tune them all out and, you know, catch some rays. (Or hey, light up.) But it’s funny to me that that "St. Tropez tan" (along with hourglass ankles) remains a beauty ideal in the first place. Maybe I’m the one who’s dated, but when I think "bronzed look" I think "aerobics craze." You know? Angelina Jolie, for one, is known for her, well, angelic pallor; fake tans (especially "man tans") are now associated with, well, douchebags. Share your thoughts? And please: wear a hat.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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