Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, it seemed like there was no such thing as sunscreen. Sure, Bain de Soleil had an SPF 4 or something like that—the highest sun-protection factor you could find was still in the single digits—but my friends and I slathered on the dark tanning oil, determined to achieve the “San Tropez Tan” that the product promised. Several of my friends slicked on baby oil instead, and then surrounded themselves with tin-foil reflectors to maximize the sun exposure.
Fast forward a few decades. The link between tanning and skin cancer is so well understood that little-kid swimwear comes in long-sleeved styles. Some sunscreens are so thick that they sit on your skin like chalky armor; the SPF numbers are higher than most kindergarteners can count. And yet, many people—especially young women and teenage girls—remain convinced that the key to a healthy look is an all-over bronze sheen. And spray-on or lotion-based fake tans don’t cut it; they want the real UV-ray deal, and they’re willing to ignore the risk of skin cancer to get it—even women for whom melanoma runs in the family.
A BMC Health survey of 500 people who were considered “at risk” for melanoma because they had a family history of that type of cancer found that young women were most likely not to use sunscreen, because they believe that being tan is healthy.
“I don’t usually use sunscreen because I really don’t burn. I like being tan,” Sara Marinelli, 16, of Long Island, told the NY Daily News. She said that she doesn’t use sunscreen at all.
Blame “Jersey Shore”—or at least Snooki, who last year told Jay Leno that she wanted to “change the world” by having a tanning bed installed in every U.S. home and who appears on MTV performing “Snookifications” on 11-year-olds.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 58,000 people in the U.S. developed skin cancer and 8.461 people died from melanomas of the skin in 2007, the most-recent year for which data is available. But, rather than avoid the sun or apply a high SPF product properly, young women seem more concerned about getting that perfect base tan—and then deepening the sun damage in order to feel pretty.
“I use sunscreen on the first day so I don’t burn,” Natasa Bilbija, 24, of Toronto, Canada. “Then I use tanning oil. You just look better with a tan. It gives you a shiny glow.”