The End of Tanning?

Though minors make up just two or three percent of most tanning salons' customers, the recent under-18 bans have been the source of particular scorn within the tanning industry.

"Whether or not a 17-year-old or 16-year-old gets a suntan, that should be up to his or her parents, not the government," John Overstreet, the executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association, told me. "The kid wants to get a suntan, and the government won't let them."

He points out that there are already warnings against overexposure on most tanning salon intake forms and on the beds themselves. "With all these warnings, why do people do this?" he said. "I honestly believe it's because we're being given bad advice."

* * *

After decades of soaking up the sun, there are signs that we might be returning to the age of the parasol—or at least a bottle of SPF 30 in every beach tote.

"There's been a cultural shift," Hillhouse, the psychologist, said. "Fifteen years ago, you would not have seen an article in Seventeen or Cosmopolitan about the dangers of indoor tanning, but now it's very common."

Quinn said that the drumbeat of skin-cancer coverage has spooked even the most devoted tanners, who now say things like, "I know it's bad for me, but I just love doing it."

Some have switched to spray tanning, even though it doesn’t generate the same “feel good” boost, he says.

But there are other signs that tanning, as a principle, is becoming passé.

"A coppertone complexion isn't looking so fresh this summer season," proclaimed a style article in USA Today last year, pointing to the rise of pasty beauties like Emma Stone and Taylor Swift.

"We're not seeing [people] flocking to tanning," Karen Grant, a beauty analyst with NPD, told me. A decade ago, fake-tan lotions made up 65 percent of sales in the "sun category," she said, but today, sunscreens dominate that market. "There's a higher awareness of safety, or lack thereof. The movement has been toward protection."

Slightly less than a third of non-Hispanic white women, who make up the majority of indoor-tanning customers, still use tanning beds. However, data from the CDC show that the number of high-school students who used indoor tanning devices has declined by about three percentage points (from 16 to 13 percent) since 2009, though that number is within the margin of error. Among girls, the drop-off was six percentage points.

Lichtenfeld noticed that when he was recently vacationing on a beach in south Georgia, roughly three out of four families were huddling under a canopy or umbrella.

It was anecdotal, to be sure, but nevertheless, “it was a lot different than what I have seen before, so maybe we are making some progress after all,” he wrote on his blog at Cancer.org.

Tanning-related posts to the "Girls Survival Guide" section of Reddit are now dominated by questions of how to achieve "a glow" without a tanning bed. A recent video showing the protective effects of sunscreen—posted by Upworthy under the headline "What Happens To Your Face When You Wear Sunscreen Might Shock You"—has generated more than 30,000 Facebook likes. The comments are tinged with exuberant outrage: "Sunscreen is a must. I want to live!!!!!!!!!!!"

* * *

There are limits to health-scare mongering, though. A February study that surveyed sorority members found that 45 percent used tanning beds even though most knew about the cancer risk.

We Are Brave

Hillhouse says that the most effective anti-tanning campaigns focus instead on how the practice can disfigure skin over time. Rather than ads that, say, portray sunbathers as laying in their own coffins, he recommends posters like one recently commissioned by Britain’s NHS, which shows a young blond woman with a mottled face and a nasty melanoma on her lip.

There haven't been any national American campaigns like this yet. But a "your skin on sun"-type strategy might make tanning go the way of smoking—another cancer-causing pastime that has declined precipitously in recent decades. Research has shown that appearance-based ads are the most effective kind for urging younger users to quit smoking.

Hillhouse also said he's seen success with pointing younger women toward websites that promote clothing and jewelry styles that go with fair skin, since many believe tanning is essential to their overall "look."

"We provided access to information on how you develop a different look that's focused around a more natural skin color," he said. "Then they'll start to change their behavior."

In that case, paging "36 Celebrities Who Prove Pale is the New Tan" to the propaganda department!

Presented by

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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