We can blame fashion for a multitude of physical ailments: hammer toes from ill-fitting shoes, tight-pants syndrome from, well, tight pants. But nothing has been more damaging - or deadly - than the suntan.
According to legend, the tan became en vogue when famous fashion designer Coco Chanel accidentally got a little too much sun during a 1920s cruise from Paris to Cannes. She stepped off the boat, and women - and men - hit the beaches in droves.
All that's changed as skin-cancer cases skyrocket and organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Dermatology educate the public about the dangers of accumulative sun damage.
But where does that leave the vast multitudes of fish-belly white people clamoring for that St-Tropez bronze?
At the drugstore.
Self-tanning products have been released in waves since Coppertone produced the first one in 1960, and though it seemed like a good idea at the time, the end result often wasn't pretty. Orange, streaky skin was the norm, but that didn't stop manufacturers from trying to produce a better product year after year.
Troy Cooper, the president of Mystic Tan, maker of automated, spray-on tanning booths, said the desire to sport a "healthy" tan is normal, despite the misnomer.
"You never hear anyone say 'Nice pale,'" he said from his office in Dallas. "It's always 'Nice tan.'"
Most people don't realize that sunless tanners, for the most part, haven't changed at all. The main active ingredient has always been dihydroxyacetone, a three-carbon sugar derived from sugar cane that dyes the skin on contact.
"The improvements have come really in the vehicle in which the active ingredients are mixed with," said Lydia Evans, a dermatologist and L'Oreal Paris consultant. "They've improved so much in the past couple of years that they really offer a smooth color - it's not so artificial."
The bonus, of course, is that you're not going to contract cancer by using a sunless-tanning product.
"They're perfectly safe," Dr. Evans said from her office in Chappaqua, N.Y. "They stain the upper level of skin and, depending on how much you shower or your activity level, they can last anywhere from a couple of days to 10-12 days."
Like painting your house, how much color you get from a sunless-tanning solution is just a matter of application.
"The more you reapply, the more color you have," Dr. Evans said. "You can apply more and get a deep, rich color, or you can apply enough to just, say, take the edge off."
That convenience is what drives a lot of people to sunless-tanning products, according to Mr. Cooper.
"When people think about sunless tanning, it's usually because of two concerns with regular tanning," he said, "the time needed to get a tan, because it takes a long time to build up a tan, and concerns about the UV rays."
Those ultraviolet rays are what have contributed to the explosion of skin-cancer cases in the United States.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 59,350 new cases of melanoma skin cancer will be reported in 2004, which will result in an estimated 10,250 deaths.
Dr. Evans said the proliferation of tanning salons has only made those numbers increase as people search for what they perceive is the perfect skin tone.
"Tanning actually damages the DNA in the skin and impairs the body's defenses to repair that damage," she said. "You don't have to be a hermit, but there's a difference between getting sun from things that require you to spend small amounts of time in the sun and intentionally laying out in the sun."
Those who spend vasts amounts of time in the sun or at tanning salons are going to see the results of all the damage eventually.
"I'd like to think that people have gotten the message (about the dangers of tanning), but I just went to an Arizona resort and I couldn't believe the number of people by the pool who would spend hours out there," Dr. Evans said.
All the more reason to try a sunless product, she said.
"They are a wonderful alternative to tanning."
Reach Erica C. Cline at (706) 828-2946 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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