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The answer is easy: We tan because it feels good, emotionally and physically. The sun on our skin, the tingle of the sun-kissed body. There's the slimming effect that we get too, as we look in the mirror when tan. "I look sexier a bit brown," my friend Dierdre says.
Darker skin adds protection to the skin, but that protection occurs only in those with naturally darker skin. If you were born pale like me, you would have little natural protection against the sun. So how does the tan actually happen? Easy. The body in its built-in wisdom, darkens naturally when exposed to UV light. The skin produces the brown pigment melanin, which darkens the skin. Voila! A tan.
Natural light elevates our mood too, while cancer lowers it. Cancer's a bummer! To every ying, there's a yang. Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, and while it represents only 4 percent of all skin cancers, it is the cause of 75 percent of all deaths. UV light causes skin cancer—there's no denying it.
As more than a million Americans each year are diagnosed with skin cancer, why do we toil at tanning, outside and inside? "UVA light that we feature is much safer for your skin than the light outdoor tanning gives," a rep for a tanning salon up 7th Avenue in Manhattan told me when I inquired on the safety of all this. Don't believe her. The fact is that UVA rays coming from those tanning bulbs and beds are two to three times more potent than the rays coming from the sun.
In the summer of 1994, I stopped tanning. My mom and dad both had skin cancers removed, which—coupled with my grandparents' history of skin cancers—served as the wake-up call to the truth that I was born pale, I am prone to skin cancer and I don't want to die from it.
A family health crisis changed my behavior. I still love the beach and sitting outdoors, but now I put on sunscreen and sit in the shade. Truth be told, I miss the glow, and while sometimes bad things feel good, tanning no longer fit into my plan to love myself through my own behaviors and daily actions. The cost of cancer was way too high.
When I married in the fall of 2008, we both got spray tans. It was fun to get color—if only temporary. I do that now from time to time, and it's a healthy (though tough on your bedsheets) way to color up without doing damage.
There are alternatives to the sun for color. Explore the ones that don't exact a pound of flesh for the brown-butter glow.
Learn the warning signs for skin cancer