We might be praying for a few last days of summer here, but our cousins across the pond seem to feel pretty differently about the sun. According to one Atlantic investigation, Americans are totally bored of bronzed skin.
From the East Coast to the West, people are apparently huddling under parasols and slapping on SPF 30. Ten years ago, fake tan products made up 65% of beauty products sold in the ‘sun category’, but sunscreen sales now outpace that. Public health authorities even class tanning beds as a Group 1 carcinogen, which puts it in the same league as cigarette smoke and (gulp) asbestos.
‘There’s been a cultural shift,’ says Joel Hillhouse, professor of public health at East Tennessee State University. ‘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.’
For many, tanning – and tanning salons, especially – have become synonymous with skin damage and cancer. So instead of going for sun-bronzed Riviera chic, they’re worshipping naturally pasty celebs like Taylor Swift and Emma Roberts.
But is the tan really passé? Try telling that to us Brits. Our love affair with golden skin is still in its first red-faced flush – but it’s a romance that can lead to serious health consequences. Just this week, doctors sounded a warning over the soaring number of skin cancer cases: they’ve increased by some 41% in the past four years alone.
The situation is especially grim for sun-seeking twentysomethings – malignant melanoma (the fancy medical name for cancerous moles and skin growths) is now the fastest growing cancer among young people.
Experts blame cheap package holidays for the increase in the number of cases, which isn’t all that surprising. Show me a girl who doesn’t think, ‘Maybe I’ll burn today, get a tan, and sunscreen tomorrow’ on an Easyjet beach break and I’ll show you a goth. My friend calls this burn’n’tan moment – which lasts until sunscreen guilt kicks in – the ‘crisping’ period. As in, ‘burnt to a crisp’.
Who can blame us? It turns out that UV rays in the sun actually stimulate the production of endorphins in the body – you know, the feel-good hormone that kicks in after sex. Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing: OD on UV exposure and you can damage the DNA of your skin cells, leading to ageing, wrinkles and much worse.
But this being gloomy grey Britain and all, it’s tough to work up the conviction to faithfully apply sunscreen – especially on the rare days that the sun actually makes an appearance. It’s hard enough to break the psychological link between tans and good ol’ summer fun after years of equating brown skin with drunken naps in the park. Hell, even I chance it on the odd sunny day and I actually used to bleach my skin.
Maybe what we need is a wake-up call: if we actually took a look at the damage underneath our hard-earned tans, we might not be so eager to go SPF-free. That’s the idea, at least, behind this viral video from New York photographer and filmmaker Thomas Leveritt.
Armed with an ultraviolet camera and lights, Leveritt invited random people on the street to look at just how sun damaged their skin was under UV. Or as he puts it: ‘We showed people what they looked like in ultraviolet, and wondered aloud if they wanted to put on some damn sunscreen already.’
How The Sun Sees You makes for pretty terrifying viewing. Even the complexions of his most flawless subjects start resembling a slice of fried toast under ultraviolet light. But the film also shows the protective powers of sunscreen – when applied to the face under UV light, it transforms into an opaque, sun-shielding coat of armour over the skin. It’s enough to make anyone want to douse themselves in SPF 50.
Is this enough to transform a perma-tanned sunbed fanatic into a sunscreen devotee? Probably not. But watching it is enough to make anyone think twice before dousing themselves in tan oil and hitting the beach towel. After all, if Britain has a long way to go before we fall out of love with our tans, the least we can do is understand what it’s actually doing to our skin.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.