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Recently, as I was lying by the pool in Fort Lauderdale, covered scalp to toes in sticky, sweat-proof SPF, I overheard the girl beside me bragging that she never uses sunscreen because she doesn’t burn. Curiosity piqued, I glanced up from my magazine to catch a glimpse of the bathing beauty. True to her word, her skin looked like a perfectly executed toasted marshmallow, and was not coated in any kind of sun protection. I immediately climbed up on my high horse and gave the girl my best “I’m so much better than you look.” I couldn’t help it -- she didn’t have a wrinkle, dimple or stretch mark anywhere on her bikini-clad body. Course, if she keeps up her SPF-free sun worshipping, that will all change sooner than she thinks.
Beyond her flawless 20-something-year-old body, I was incredulous that she could be so cavalier about her sunbathing practices. I hate slathering sunscreen onto my pasty white skin. And--I cringe to admit this--I like a little bit of a summer glow, even though research shows that the very act of tanning is nothing other than skin damage, which, as we all know, can lead to premature aging, wrinkles and skin cancer. At 36, I’ve already begun to see the effects of not using enough sunscreen. I used SPF 8 growing up, and never thought to apply sunscreen every day before venturing out. My reward: another kind of tan –age spots. The obvious splotches of sun damage have been, at least, a wake-up call. Now, it’s SPF 30 or more most days of the week. (though that doesn't mean I don't still yearn to venture outside unprotectected some days in the hopes of getting a little glow.)
According to a new poll by iVillage Health and The Skin Cancer Foundation, I’m not the only one who's felt conflicted about wearing sunscreen. In fact, I’ve got plenty of wrinkled and sun-damaged company. In a survey of 2,400 adults, 95 percent of respondents said they think tanning is dangerous (I’d like to know who that other five percent is), but only one-third is concerned about getting skin cancer. And it’s not because they protect themselves from the sun. Only 28 percent of women and 10 percent of men use sunscreen with SPF 15 or more every day, while 20 percent of all adults said they use sun factor only when they go to the beach.
Interestingly enough, that’s the same percentage of Americans who will develop skin cancer over their lifetime (20 percent), according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. It is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., and the majority of cases can be blamed on sun exposure–and prevented by covering up. But all of these cancer stats are probably falling on deaf ears.
Past research has found a direct link between tanning and melanoma, but talking about its cancer risk doesn’t seem to dissuade people from tanning. However, talking about the sun’s effect on premature aging and wrinkles does. For all the fears we have about cancer, it seems Americans are much more afraid of looking old or unattractive. Tanning is, after all, something most people do for aesthetic purposes. So it stands to reason that vanity-related issues like sagging or sun-spotted skin would drive the message home.
Besides, people are much more willing to play Russian roulette with their health than with their looks. Though I don’t have any scientific evidence to back it up, I think I can say pretty confidently that there are women out there who will smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, but are unable to get a new haircut without taking a poll of at least 12 of their closest friends.
We also know that regular exercise and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer, but a lot of us are much more motivated to do so for the sake of weight loss (e.g. looking better). We don’t want to be a healthy weight, after all, it seems; we want to have a body that will make men drool.
Though there’s no evidence to support it, many people believe that they look thinner with a tan, and that the bronzed look can even mask cellulite. One thing we know tanning definitely will do, though, is make you look older. Need proof? Just look at this picture of identical 59-year-old twins on the Skin Cancer Foundation’s web site. We bet you can guess which one had the tanning habit.
If you really want that bronzed look, get your glow on from sunless tanners instead. And wear sun block with SPF 15 or higher when you're outside. That’s not just good health advice, it’s smart beauty advice, too. Bronzers and self-tanners have come a long way in recent years, and can give you an even, golden hue without the sunburn, wrinkles or age spots. Not to mention, without the cancer, too.
How often do you wear sun block? Chime in below.