With the long days of summer upon us, many of us are hitting the beaches and getting suntans.  Southern California is obsessed with both beauty and health, and tanning sits at the intersection of the two.  Suntans have become symbols of status, health and beauty.

But why?  There are certainly no health benefits to tanning, and many health risks.  Dermatologists have been warning us for over a generation that sun exposure increases our risk of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.  It certainly increases the risks of less serious skin cancers too, not to mention wrinkling and other forms of skin damage.  The Darker Side of Tanning, a publication of the American Academy of Dermatology details the dangers of tanning.  They should hand it out at beaches and indoor tanning centers.

Sunshine certainly has a couple of health benefits.  Sunshine stimulates our skin to make vitamin D, but the amount of sunlight needed for adequate vitamin D is just a few minutes a day, much less than is needed for tanning.  (And you can get vitamin D in fortified foods or in supplement pills and skip the sun altogether.)  The other benefit to sunshine is its effect on our mood.  There is no question that sunshine (or bright fluorescent light which has the same color spectrum) elevates our mood.  Some people even get depressed when the daylight hours shrink in the winter, a condition called seasonal affective disorder.  But we don’t need to tan to get the mood-elevating benefits of longer days.  It’s enough to just see the sunlit outdoors though a window (which blocks harmful ultraviolet rays).

So why do we associate tans with health and beauty?  Like many other modern standards of beauty, the answer is purely passing fashion.  Before the beginning of the twentieth century tans were considered evidence of low status, since it implied having to do manual labor outdoors.  The wealthy worked very hard to avoid the sun and used makeup to lighten their skin.  Then, in the twentieth century, when most labor moved indoors, suntans became a symbol of affluence and leisure, suggesting a lifestyle that can afford a beach vacation.

So I encourage you to start a new trend.  Perhaps we can make it cool to have skin that’s as brown, black, yellow or pink as the day we were born.  That would be healthy, and in my opinion, beautiful.

Tangential Miscellany:

In case you were looking for more misleading meaningless studies that nevertheless get a lot of attention, here’s another study to ignore.