There is no such thing as a “healthy tan,” and new studies prove that this myth has helped contribute to the rising number of new melanoma cases every year.
Researchers found that increasing U.S. melanoma rates track with skin-baring fashions, increased leisure time, and acceptance of the idea of a “healthy tan,” over the course of the 20th century.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, and is the leading cause of death from skin disease, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight is the major risk factor for melanoma. UV rays damage the DNA of skin cells, and skin cancers begin when this damage affects the DNA of genes that control skin cell growth.
“More and more we realize how damaging UV light is to our skin. Once the skin is damaged by overexposure to the sun it simply means the collagen level has been substantially depleted, and we notice wrinkles, redness, brown spots, and blotchy brown discoloration,” says Jacqui Dunal, Founder of Naturel Collagen.
Tracking the Trends
Dr. David Polsky, a dermatologist with the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, and his colleagues examined socioeconomic trends throughout the 20th century, including social norms, clothing styles, economic patterns, medical paradigms, and travel and vacation patterns.
“What I found most interesting about our findings was how the many socioeconomic and cultural forces came together over time to get us where we are today with respect to ultraviolet light exposure and the continued rise in melanoma incidence,” said Polsky.
Polsky and his colleagues divided the 20th century into four periods and reviewed the artwork, advertisements, and clothing catalogs for each period.
Before 1910, fair skin was desirable, because it signified membership in the wealthy leisure class. There was a stigma associated with tanned skin, because most of the working class worked outdoors, and couldn’t help but develop a tan. Swimsuits covered 75% of the skin surface for both men and women, and sportswear covered more than 90%.
1910 – Late 1930s
Tans became more acceptable between 1910 and 1930, as the average American had more leisure time to spend outdoors, and clothing became a little more revealing. Swimsuits covered half the body and sportswear revealed 14% of men’s skin and 27% of women’s skin.
During this time, there also developed a belief that ultraviolet light had therapeutic benefits for certain diseases, including tuberculosis, psoriasis, and rickets. As a result, tanned skin became associated with good health, and tanning really began to take off.
1940s – 1970s
Between 1940 and 1970, Americans became more outdoorsy, and their clothing got smaller and smaller. Swimsuits now revealed more than 80% of the body, and sportswear revealed 40% of the body on both men and women.
It was also during this time that the dangers of UV light exposure became known, and dermatologists began recommending sunscreen to avoid sunburn. In 1950, three in every 100,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma. By the late 1970s, that rate tripled among men, and more than doubled among women.
Late 20th Century
Indoor tanning became popular in the late 20th century, and swimsuits exposed roughly 90% of the body, with sportswear revealing almost half of the skin. Melanoma rates rose to about 14 men in 100,000, and 11 women.
Comparing the two sets of data, the researchers found almost perfect alignment between the increases in skin exposure to UV rays, and melanoma diagnosis rates.
Unhealthy and Unflattering
While melanoma is by far the most serious disadvantage associated with sun exposure, it isn’t the only one. That healthy-looking tan that so many beach-goers are after is actually an indication of slightly damaged skin.
“First and foremost, in order to repair the damage done to the DNA cells The level of collagen needs to be replenished, this can only be done with natural collagen. Unfortunately, most of the skin care products available on the market contain bovine and hydrolyzed collagen, which is nothing to our skin. Furthermore, regular use of sunscreens, exfoliation, and hydrogen may help to repair the damage and may reverse some of the damage already done,” explains Dunal.
Tanned skin means the body has produced melanin, or skin pigmentation, in an attempt to protect itself against ultraviolet light. Exposure to ultraviolet light breaks down the structure of collagen, which accelerates wrinkles and the appearance of aging.
The Trendy New Cure
Retro swimwear has made a resurgence in popularity at beaches and pools across America, thanks to waves of nostalgia brought on by pop culture, not to mention the figure-flattering potential these retro suits have for all body types. Perhaps we will see cases of melanoma begin to plateau, or even decrease, thanks to this new fashion trend as well as increased awareness of the damaging effects of deliberate sun exposure.