Risks haven't darkened tanning's allure

  • Article by: LESLIE BARKER , Dallas Morning News
  • Updated: July 21, 2013 - 3:32 PM
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Jenna Hoffman sunbathes although skin cancer runs in her family.

Photo: Sonya Hebert-Schwartz, Dallas Morning News

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Jenna Hoffman thinks that people, herself included, generally look better with a tan — “better than bright white,” she says.

So most weekends, she’s lying outside with her eyes closed, listening to music while the sun darkens her skin. If she knows she’ll be outside all day, she wears sunscreen. Otherwise, “I don’t wear it every time because I’m trying to get a tan,” says Hoffman, 29, of Dallas.

Because skin cancer runs in her family, and because she’s had a few pre-cancerous spots removed, she goes to the dermatologist every six months.

Sunbathing “is always taking a risk,” says Hoffman, who is blond and fair-skinned. “If anything pops up, I’ll get it removed,” she says.

Despite well-publicized research about risks of sunbathing, despite skin cancer being the most common malignancy in the United States and despite a rise in melanoma rates — the American Cancer Society predicts 77,000 new cases and 9,000 deaths in 2013 — Hoffman’s attitude isn’t all that uncommon.

Dr. Jerald L. Sklar sighs when asked why, when sun exposure is responsible for so many types and cases of skin cancer, people continue to suntan.

“That’s a good question,” says Sklar, a physician on staff at Baylor University Medical Center. He offers three possibilities:

A tanning addiction: “They get a brain high that makes them happy,” he says.

A vitamin D issue: Yes, some sun is needed to help strengthen bones, he says, “but not enough to risk skin cancer.”

An invincible feeling: “The younger crowd — teenagers, young adults — think they’re invincible,” says Sklar, who is with Dallas Associated Dermatologists. “They’re not realizing later in life the damage this causes.”

Dr. Cameron Coury, a Richardson, Texas, dermatologist, says: “My younger patients don’t see brown spots or wrinkles or changing moles. That doesn’t mean when you’re 50 and something pops up, you won’t wish you’d lived your younger lives differently.”

She’s heartened by parents who won’t let their children go outside without sunscreen and stores like J. Crew that sell sun-protective clothing.

“But you have to encourage that to continue when they hit the teen years and want to rebel,” Coury says.

Often, in what she calls a “weird contradiction,” people are obsessed about exercise, weight loss and quitting smoking but not about caring for their skin.

“People take their skin for granted a lot of times unless there’s a problem,” Coury says.

Or, in many cases, someone else has a problem. “I can’t tell you how many people come in and say someone they know has been diagnosed or died from melanoma,” Sklar says.

When a close friend ended up with the disease, Rebecca Thompson changed her tanning habits. Thompson, 39, remembers coating her skin with baby oil in her teen years and climbing onto the roof of her house to sunbathe.

Now she might go out about 10 times during the summer, and “I slather on the sunscreen.”

“When my friend was diagnosed, it was a wake-up call,” says Thompson, who teaches fourth grade. “I still like to tan; I still like to lay out. But my skin doesn’t get as much sun because I use so much sunblock.”

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