Did you ever wonder how some people look like they just stepped off a tropical beach all year long? Look around you. There are probably fair-skinned folks and those with darker complexions. How many of those swarthier people are altering the color of their skin artificially?
It is an odd but the fact that some white people (by which I mean Caucasians and nothing more) believe that having a rich, golden tan sends the subliminal message to the world: “I am rich.”
One of the first really famous celebrities to come out of the closet and admit that he tanned regularly in order to appear fabulously wealthy was Dynasty soap opera actor George Hamilton. Long before that role, Hamilton appeared on chat television shows promoting his ultra-bronzed facade – it was his brand.
Hamilton completed high school in 1957 at Hackley School in Blytheville, Arkansas. After that, he moved to Florida where he quickly “became addicted to the tanned look” after he discovered his ultra-tan was a babe magnet. Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury fictional cartoon character Zonker Harris spent most of the 1980s lying in a chaise lounge chair with an open shirt, straw hat, and drink in his hand, seeking “the perfect tan.” He began entering international tanning competitions. His idol was – need we say? – the real-life George Hamilton.
That Hollywood star has said on many occasions that he never uses chemical spray tanning products. Instead, Hamilton “always spends at least 15 minutes in the sun every single day.” Furthermore, the copper-toned thespian ” believes spray tanning can be linked to various skin diseases.”
Taking a 1/4 hour solar treatment on a daily basis may be possible in the Sunshine State, but what are the rest of us supposed to do in our pursuit of the Perfect Tan?
If you have never visited a tanning salon, you have missed out on a dedicated subculture of pseudo-sun worshippers. I have been a tanning salon patron since their infancy in the U.S. during the mid-1980s. I continue to be highly satisfied with my appearance and the health benefits of a long-term, regulated, and safe regimen of UV (ultraviolet) light exposure.
The very first tanning salon operator I met ran a smart operation in sunny Florida, where I happened to live. My goal was to have no tan lines – enough said, except that I didn’t want to tan pool-side. I wanted privacy so I could shuck my all-in-all.
Frankie told me the secret to healthy, cancer-free tanning:
1. Shower with soap as soon as possible after tanning.
2. Emoliate (put on lotion) all exposed skin after showering after tanning.
This is the practice I have followed for decades. My skin likes to tan, being only half pale-skinned Scots-Irish with the other half from sun-tolerant Mediterranean stock.
There has been a lot of ballyhoo about how tanning in sunlight or under tanning lamps or bulbs causes skin cancer. But there is clear evidence that vitamin D from sunlight is critical to good health and the rate of deficiency in the Sunshine Vitamin among Americans is epidemic.
I suspect that people who developed skin issues after UV light exposure failed to shower and apply lotion afterward on a regular basis. If they hadn’t talked to Frankie (and odds are they wouldn’t have), how could they know?
My 100% Scots-Irish-heritaged mother would get along great with New York board-certified dermatologist Arielle Kauvar, MD, who is convinced that Tans Are Bad, M’Kay?
“There is no such thing as a safe UV tan. The reddening or browning of skin with sun exposure is a sign of skin damage.”
Given this radical difference of opinion, many people who want a luxuriant tan don’t want to risk getting skin cancer from direct exposure to sunlight (natural or artificial) – which is completely understandable.
For these people, there are the chemical spray products that George Hamilton told Oprah he avoids:
“It’s not the spray tan that I’m after. It’s the actual plug-in to the sun that I feel when I’m in it. So for me the idea of sun-tanning has always been a health thing, and I know there are a lot of conflicting views about that.”
But can spray tans cause skin cancer? This is the sort of irony that we saw with carcinogenic suntan lotions. An “incredibly common ingredient in sunscreen” – avobenzone – can become toxic when it comes into contact with sun and chlorine (bleach), according to dermatologist Dr. Abigail Waldman of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
Spray tans products are called self-tanners and the most common active ingredient in them is dihydroxyacetone (DHA) which comes from sugar beets, sugar cane, or the fermentation of glycerin:
“DHA is a colorless sugar which cross-links with the top layer of your skin (the stratum corneum) to create a darkening of the skin. The top layer of the skin consists primarily of dead cells, and the pigment is retained until the top layer of the skin is shed, which is typically in 14 days, although pigment will lighten in five to seven days.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved DHA for external use in 1977. Since then, the potential harm to human health posed by DHA has been hotly contested. The FDA actually does warn about the dangers of inhaling DHA, adding that it should never touch the lips or any eye area, including eyebrows and eyelids.
Anyone using self-tanner products should wear nose plugs, eye and mouth protection, and protective undergarments to protect from possible “carcinogenic effect of particles in the lining of lungs” and cover up open cuts or sores.
Spray tans may cause premature skin aging if you don’t apply a body moisturizer before and after application. DHA can draw a lot of moisture out of the skin, causing it to dry and wrinkle.
Also, be sure to exfoliate your skin before applying any self-tanner. Calloused areas will bind more chemicals and turn a different color from the rest of your body.
More troubling is the fact that sunless tanning operators typically know next to nothing about chemistry. They have no idea what’s in the lotions and skin products they sell, often for big bucks. To add to this problem, salon products (as distinct from those for home use) are exempt from labeling – so you can’t check the ingredients list before coating yourself with who-knows-what-it-is-really.
If you want to check out a self-tanner product, head over to the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and look it up.
One self-tanner, Mystic Tan, contains more propylene glycol than DHA, plus retinyl palmitate, which has been demonstrated to advance the development of skin tumors when sunlight is present. The company’s at-home tanner has a similar (but not identical) ingredient list, rates a seven – 10 being the most toxic, according to EWG’s Cosmetics Database.
Whether you tan with or without direct UV exposure, I highly recommend you heed all known health warnings about all skin treatment products and follow my “cleanse and moisturize” routine faithfully after tanning. After all, bronzed is beautiful.