Women tanning
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If you love the feeling of the sun beating down on you as you strive for that golden glow, you're not alone. But doing so can come at a dangerous price—skin cancer. Brad Lamm shares why tanning addiction is a lot more common than you think.
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, there were two tanaholics on my sleepy little street. Single moms and independent women, both of them, Trudy and Kelly would make a neighborhood event out of heading to Trudy's front yard on sunny days with folded mirrored contraptions that reflected the sun's rays more directly at the face, neck and chin. "I wanna glow!" Trudy would bark from her self-imposed outdoor oven.

The neighborhood boys loved the spectacle of the two gals getting dark. Trudy, in particular, kept a deep tan year-round, thanks to her own tanning lamp, under which she'd bake to a chestnutty brown during winter.

Long before tanning beds and parlors popped up on street corners, health club, hair salons and strip malls, we've been drawn to the glow of sun on our hides. Coco Chanel popularized tanning in the 1920s, saying the tan was "in." Tanning was a mark of the affluent, the upper crust. Hollywood shows the bronzed beauty as a picture of perfection, and over time we've come to think that pale is, well, pathetic in some ways.

The truth is this: UV light is long known to cause a variety of cancers. Cancer of the skin is the most common cancer in the United States. So if cancer kills (which it does, no denying this), why do tanning salons continue to grow in popularity, and why are we hurting ourselves with the push of a button day after day?

Why people still tan despite its harmful effects
Woman tanning poolside
Photo: Digital Vision/Thinkstock
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
Sunburnt legs
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The Business of Tanning
1. More than 30 million Americans visit a tanning salon each year.
2. More than 1 million a day check in to brown up.
3. Upwards of 70 percent of all devoted tanners are Caucasian women aged 16-49.
4. Indoor tanning is a $5 billion dollar a year biz.
5. The World Health Organization has called for the ban of teen tanning at salons.
6. Half of U.S. states regulate teen tanning.

Eye See the Light
1. The Centers for Disease Control says your eyes are harmed by UV light, with potential damage including blindness. Goggles and sunglasses only protect so much.
2. UVA, UVB + UVC are the three types of light rays.
3. UVA + UVB are both dangerous and cause skin cancer.
4. UV rays increase with altitude, so if you vacation or live at higher elevation, the cost to your eyes and skin increases.

Skin Crisis 101
Early detection of skin cancers is key. If you don't see it and treat it, it will put your very life at risk. Here are some signs that may indicate cancer:
1. A skin spot that increases in size and changes color or even shape.
2. A skin spot that hurts, itches, scabs up, bleeds or even becomes crusty.
3. An open sore that doesn't heal up in a few weeks, or that opens again.
4. A mole or growth that changes in any way.

Brad Lamm is a board-registered interventionist. He is the author of How to Change Someone You Love. His group offers free training and support groups at BradLamm.com.

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