Why I’m Hitting the Tanning Bed

I’m pasty. I can’t help it and I blame my Danish ancestry. In the winter, I’m fluorescently translucent with all my blue veins on display. I don’t tan readily, though once I’ve gotten started, it doesn’t take much to maintain it. Last summer, I laid out on the back deck several times, hoping to take the glare off my legs a bit and nothing really happened. So this year, I decided to start frequenting my friendly neighborhood tanning salon.

What began as a pure case of vanity recently turned into something much more. I read Dr. Catherine Shanahan’s Deep Nutrition and she briefly discusses the benefits of moderate sun exposure for—get this—UVA and UVB protection. You don’t hear that from your dermatologist.

The melanocytes in our outermost layers of skin release a chemical that spurs the production of melanin. It’s this melanin, a skin pigment, that produces that sexy, Baywatch glow. Melanin, unlike sunscreens which only block UVB rays, blocks the entire spectrum of UV light.

With the arrival of summer this year, sunscreens came under fire again (see my previous post here). And rightly so. There is evidence to suggest that people are getting a false sense of security from those little SPF numbers, staying out in the sun longer because they aren’t burning, and still getting skin cancers. It would stand to reason that if you’re blocking UVBs but not UVAs, that this little seeming-contradiction could actually be true. What’s more, several studies are discovering that melanoma is found more often in sunscreen users compared to non-users, although a causal link has yet to be made. It’s even possible that sunscreens themselves contain nasty ingredients that contribute to melanoma (PABA is one known culprit). I highly recommend The Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen guide to help you find an effective and safe sunscreen. Also, at the risk of citing Wikipedia as a credible source, they do have a great page on the potential risks of sunscreens here. What?! They have lots of citations!

Get out there and enjoy yourself!

So when I know I’ll be out and about for several hours or in intense sun and heat, I wear a minimal sunscreen to prevent burning. Dr. Shanahan recommends this, since sunburns create inflammation in the body and inflammation blocks normal signals for a healthy body while sending other signals for our bodies to store fat. No bueno. But she also advocates building up a base tan for true, complete protection.

Game on! But I had another good reason for lying naked in a space-age tube. In May, I visited lovely Phoenix, AZ to visit my friend Juliann, and hell if I was going to spend the whole time indoors. It hovered around 100°F every day, and it felt lovely. I didn’t have to worry when we visited the botanical gardens, when we flew through the air on the trapeze (here), or when we were chilling on a patio with an ice cold cerveza.

Several years ago, I accidentally performed my own n=1 experiment. One year, my husband and I went on a sailing vacation to the British Virgin Islands. I pre-tanned in tanning beds, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The next year, we went on a sailing vacation to Belize. I was busy with grad school and didn’t pre-tan. I burned mercilessly every day, over and over, despite constant sunscreen application (probably due to so much in and out of the water). And when I got home, none of that burning translated to tan.

But let me tell you, tanning beds aren’t as annoying as they used to be. I remember way back when I would go before high school prom (almost 20 years ago!). You’d lay there for 20 minutes and you’d have to go every other day to maintain it. These days, the beds have a lot less UVA light and more UVB for bringing up that melanin. Before my trip in May, I went 3-4 times a week for two weeks to build up my base tan, and ever since, I only go in once a week for 7 minutes to maintain. As a busy mom with things I’d rather be doing, this works for me. Plus, it’s surprisingly relaxing to lay there with absolutely nothing else to do, even if only for 7 minutes.

I’m not aiming for George Hamilton color here, folks. I just want the fluorescent knocked off a bit. Some people are surprised when I mention I’ve been tanning. And it doesn’t hurt that I feel a bit more confident in skirts, shorts, and swimsuits.

Besides, I’m adding sunscreen companies to the list of shysters (including the industrialized food complex, shoe companies, and the dental industry) who think they know better than our own bodies and the world in which we evolved. THE SUN IS THE PRIMARY SOURCE OF ALL LIFE ON EARTH. How could it be so evil? We evolved with its presence in our lives, and while we shouldn’t go overboard, we shouldn’t be avoiding it either.

And I haven’t even touched on the benefits of all that naturally-produced Vitamin D. Vanity and health? Love it.

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16 Responses to “Why I’m Hitting the Tanning Bed”

  1. I totally agree with this even though it is pretty medically controversial. Don’t you know that tanning beds are a KNOWN carcinogen?! (insert sarcastic tone…)

    Anyways, I think the vitamin D piece of the puzzle is fascinating. Dr. Hollick writes in the Vitamin D Solution that he has helped patients offset their Crohn’s symptoms through tanning beds. If there is a person who cannot absorb fat soluble vitamins, tanning beds are a great alternative to keep their vitamin D stores high (as long as the person knows how to get appropriate and not damaging exposure).

    Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing! Now I am thinking about going tanning a few times before my sister-in-laws wedding. Who needs to be pasty for the photos?!

  2. I travel at least once a month to a tropical climate to get my dose of natural Vitamin D (especially during Chicago’s winters), but if I miss a month or two, I always hit the tanning salon for 2 short bursts of the unnatural light, just to prep my skin for the sun. If only parasols were in fashion again (maybe masculine ones)?

    As Crunchy Pickle (ha!) said, vitamin D is definitely something I was missing during my 20s, and I know I always feel better after a romp in the sun throwing a frisbee or wrestling with my paleo/primal friends.

    • Wow, that’s a lot of tropical travel, lucky you! After our second prolonged and rainy spring, I told my husband we’re going to plan a trip to somewhere sunny every March-April now. Where are some of your favorite locales?

  3. I think the public health officials have a lot of explaining and research to do with this sunscreen debacle. So many other theories as to why we are getting more and more skin cancers.

  4. Oh, you’re going to get it with this one: “How could you be so irresponsible, my ____ (brother, uncle, etc)___ had melanoma. Don’t you know this is one disease which is 100% preventable?!” Just thought I’d get that over with.

    A look at the statistics helps put this in perspective. It has been shown that a major sunburn (the kind that causes blisters) at a young age doubles your chance of melanoma later in life. While this sounds impressive, the incidence of melanoma in 2002 (the last year I could find records) was 17/100,000, or a 0.017% chance. Doubling your risk would give you a 0.034% chance of developing melanoma that year. (Life time risk is higher but more difficult to estimate). Anyway, you are slightly more likely to die in a car crash, and car crash deaths are actually preventable unlike melanoma, the cause of which is still relatively mysterious.

    A couple studies have pointed to the protective effects of low level sun exposure against melanoma, and others have shown a detrimental effect of sunblock, as you mentioned. While it’s probably the case that severe sunburns increase the risk of melanoma, it is certainly not obvious that sunblock prevents it. At a minimum it would seem, based on available evidence, that a nice even layer of melanin in your skin is more protective than sunblock in preventing melanoma.

    • Thanks for the numbers, I couldn’t quite isolate those. I just look at Wikipedia. :)

      Yeah, it’s like I said, I’m beginning to think it’s better to take my chances with the natural world than with some miracle concoction made in a test tube. Didn’t they used to call that snake oil?

  5. Wow, George Hamilton is way too tan.

  6. Thank you thank you thank you. These are the kind of words I love to read. A point followed by facts. I personally also do the tanning bit partially for my own vanity but also for seasonal depression, in the winter I will occasionally hit the bed to get outta the blues and also feel slightly better about my preparation for summer (even when it’s months and months away). Thank you for this post.

  7. I am just curious, did you use any type of lotion when you went to the tanning beds?

    • No. I have a suspicion they are totally unnecessary. You want to keep skin hydrated in general, which can be done with any ol’ lotion both before and after a session. I’m certain the stuff they try to sell at the salon is full of questionable ingredients and I doubt any of the claims of helping you tan better or deeper could be true. So save your money!

      • Thank you for the tip! I am glad I asked before I forked over $50 for a bottle of lotion.

      • Tanning lotion…. If you are simply interested in the UV exposure and it’s Vitamin D, most lotions that hydrate will suffice. However, many lotions carry ingredients that will mar the expensive acrylics in tanning beds. For 10 bucks you can buy indoor tanning lotion at any CVS… a good brand is Hawaiian Tropic. Cheap, but effective. Some salon owners frown on you using lotions you didn’t buy from them… but I don’t, as long as you use a lotion formulated for indoor tanning beds. So save 40 of your 50 bucks.
        Now that being said if you are looking for a dark rich tan…remember the old adage “you get what you pay for”. There is no doubt that the $50 lotion will get you darker. And faster. So you achieve the desired results in less visits..therefore saving you money on the front end. If time is not an issue…the $10 lotion will do just fine.
        Also keep in mind that although tanning lotion is designed to get you darker…it’s secondary, and most important function, at least to me, is that it dramatically reduces your risk of burning.
        Just be patient and don’t over expose.
        Great article Karen…

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  8. Tanning lotion…. If you are simply interested in the UV exposure most lotions that hydrate will suffice. However, many lotions carry ingredients that will mar the expensive acrylics in tanning bed. For 10 bucks you can buy indoor tanning lotion at any CVS… a good brand is Hawaiian Tropic. Cheap but effective. Some salon owners frown on you using lotion you didn’t buy from them… but I don’t. as long as you use a lotion formulated for indoor tanning beds. So save 40 of your 50 bucks.
    Now that being said if you are looking for a dark rich tan…remember the old adage “you get what you pay for. There is no doubt that the $50 lotion will get you darker. And faster. So you achieve the desired results in less visits..therefore saving you money on the front end. If time is not an issue…the $10 lotion will do just fine.
    Also keep in mind that although tanning lotion is designed to get you darker…it’s secondary, and most important unction, at least to me, is that it dramatically reduces your risk of burning.
    Just be patient and don’t over expose.
    Great article Karen…

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