I’ve always found the history of tanning rather interesting. In the past, before the industrial age, tan skin was considered extremely undesirable. The white, soft skin prized by the aesthetic of the times could only be reached by spending a life indoors, as only the wealthy could do. People would even taken arsenic or use lead-based powders on their skin for a pale appearance.

By the end of the Victorian era, poorer people were going into factories to work, and so suddenly it wasn’t only the wealthy who were pale. Physicians in that era also began recommending sun exposure as a cure for various illnesses, (it did wonders for rickets). Shortly after, Coco Chanel (a style icon of the time) began sporting a tan, and Josephine Baker’s “caramel skin” (she was African-American) was sought after. Soon it was very desirable to be tan.

We now know that unlimited sun exposure can be dangerous, as can sunburns and sun tanning. It can increase the risk of skin cancer dramatically, as well as cause early wrinkling and skin damage. And yet tan skin is still in fashion in some circles. So if a teen is hankering for a golden glow, what’s a parent supposed to do? Let’s look at options.

(This post obviously is more aimed towards light-skinned teens. We’ll be looking at sun health for darker-skinned teens in a forthcoming post.)

Sunless Tanning:  There has been recent research questioning the health effects of one of the main ingredients in sunless tanners, called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). The jury’s out, and it’s still considered safer than tanning in the sun. There’s one important exception, though: nobody should be inhaling, or exposing their eyes, nose, or mouth, to DHA. This means that your teen should avoid “mist chambers” where sunless tanning solution is sprayed into the air, and they shouldn’t apply spray tan to themselves either. If they want to use sunless tanning at home, they should use lotions, creams, or gels.

Tanning Beds: Tanning beds are terrible for your teen. They basically take the most dangerous parts of sun exposure and concentrate them on your teen’s skin. States are starting to ban the use of tanning beds by people under 18 due to the adverse health effects. Some people use tanning beds as “light therapy” for certain skin disorders; while UVA and B exposure can help some skin conditions, there are often safer light therapy options. Talk to your medical provider before taking your teen to the tanning salon.

The Sun: Too much sun exposure can lead to both cancer and cosmetic damage. At the same time, we don’t want our teens to turn into vampires. I would never recommend that teens avoid activities outside like sports, hiking, or gardening, because of the sun. However, regular sun bathing for the purpose of lying out in the sun and getting a tan is a bad idea, health-wise. If your teen is going to be out in the sun they should wear a hat that shades their face, wear a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays with an SPF rating above 15 on all exposed skin, and try to avoid the sun between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm if possible. Extra clothing to cover bare skin never hurts!

Tanning Pills: I didn’t even know these existed. In short, the vast majority are not proven safe (the FDA documentation mentions something unpleasant about crystals in the eye), and there’s no guarantee your teen won’t turn orange.

Remaining Pale: It’s healthiest, and it seems to be in fashion in at least half of the magazines and movies I see. Perhaps we do want our teens to be like vampires?

Do you tan? Does your teen tan? What do you think?