Eva Robertson, 30, is a fair-skinned redhead with moles all over her body. For several years now, she has been heading out of Toronto every summer to a rented cottage at Blind River, Ontario to get that oh-so-desirable tanned look. One day she noticed that the mole on her back had grown bigger and changed shape. The mole had also become darker. Soon, it became itchy and started bleeding.
Robertson has been diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. "For the first few weeks I could not believe that I had skin cancer. All my life, melanoma has been something that happens to other people," she says.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in Canada. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the US, one in three cancers is skin-related, and is a result of people's quest for the dark, tanned look. While basal and squamous are more common and treatable forms of skin cancers, melanoma is considered potentially deadly.
According to Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA), a national dermatologist group, 2005 will see 30 per cent more cases of skin cancer in Canada compared to just 10 years ago. An estimated 76,000 new cases of common skin cancers are expected. CDA has projected that more than 60,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with basal cell skin cancer. Although it is the least dangerous form of skin cancer, if left untreated, basal cell carcinoma can eventually cause disfigurement.
The numbers from neighboring USA are even more dismal. Community-based voluntary health organization American Cancer Society says that 60,000 new cases of melanoma will be detected in 2005.
CDA attributes this rise in preventable skin cancer to excessive sun exposure. During summers, in their enthusiasm for the elusive suntan, people tend to get careless about the use of sunscreens. This is particularly worrisome in view of the fact that the ozone layer - which filters out harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sunrays - is anywhere between one to eight per cent below normal levels.
Meanwhile, for North Americans, a sun-tanned skin remains firmly established as a sign of success, power and energy. The popular myth is that when actresses like Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson, and models like Gisele Bundchen and millionaire Paris Hilton, maintain the brown and beautiful look all year round, it cannot really be harmful. Fashion magazines and television shows continue to parade the bronzed look as a sign of success and vigor. The result is that there are always people willing to risk cancer for the tanned 'outdoors look'.
Those seeking the tanned look throughout the year are at double jeopardy. Post-summer, North Americans head to salons that offer tans at an affordable price. "Hey you snowflake, look in the mirror. Get a quick tan." Slogans like these, put out by tanning salons, are not uncommon in Toronto. "Indulge yourself guilt-free with a Hollywood tan," they prompt. Toronto alone has more than 40 tanning salons.
In the US, the tanning salon market is now a US$ 5 billion industry, growing from fewer than 10,000 outlets in the early 1990s to about 50,000 today. According to American Academy of
Dermatology (AAD), an international body of dermatologists, 26 per cent of young people under age 25 had used a tanning bed in the US in 2004. Of that number, more than half were young women.
Tanning salons promise customers an everyday golden-brown skin, or a quick skin makeover for a wedding, reunion or other special event. The most popular device used in salons is a clamshell-like tanning bed. The customer lies down on a Plexiglas surface with goggles for eye protection and relaxes as the body is tanned from both above and below.
The rapidly-growing tanning industry assures customers that artificial UV radiation is a safe way to tan, and that it provides a number of health benefits as well - including much-needed Vitamin D. However, scientific research proves that artificial UV radiation is as dangerous as natural UV radiation.
Alarmed at the growing number of cancer cases and the popularity of tanning salons, WHO issued a public warning in North America in March 2005. In its statement, WHO said, "Growth in the use of sun beds, combined with the desire and fashion to have a tan are considered to be the prime reasons behind this fast growth in skin cancers." It issued a warning that no person under 18 years of age should use tanning beds.
WHO's warning could not have come sooner. Sun beds emit levels of UV radiations many times stronger than the mid-day summer sun.
According to WHO, some of the main consequences of excess UV exposure include skin cancer, eye damage and premature skin ageing. Making a case against tanning salons, WHO reaffirmed what research had already explained. A study done in Quebec, a Canadian province, in 1999 discovered that 26 per cent of tanning bed users in Canada had experienced adverse effects, including burns.
But are people aware of these facts? In May 2005, AAD conducted a survey in the US, where people were asked whether or not they look better with a tan: 61 per cent of women and 69 per cent of men aged 18 and older said they do. In fact, the majority of women (54 per cent) and men (60 per cent) even believed that people actually look healthier when they have a tan. When asked whether they know about factors that contribute to an increased risk of skin cancer, more women than men knew that getting a tan from the sun could be dangerous (94 per cent vs. 89 per cent). It seems that despite knowing the link between suntan and cancer, a majority of the people in the US associate tanning with health and beauty.
That said, there are safer tanning alternatives to the UV radiation. While the CDA is firm on its altruistic position that "no tan is good tan", many are choosing the middle path and heading to spray-on tanning salons. These salons use a plant-based dye, dihydroxyacetone, to give customers a fake tan that stays for about a week, and does not rub off on clothes or come off when toweling the body dry.
American Cancer Society continues to urge people to "Slip, Slop and Slap" - slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat before venturing out in the sun. In a world increasingly obsessed with body images, it remains to be seen how many people will take these suggestions seriously.