I entered my teen years in the 1970’s, and there were oh so many ways in which I did not live up to the beauty standards of the time. One of these was my skin’s stubborn refusal to tan. This was the decade of the California Girl, after all. Casually windswept and blonde, she was everywhere, in her short shorts, halter top, and wooden Dr. Scholl’s sandals. She lounged on her Love Boat, sipped Daquiris on her Fantasy Island, and fought crime with Charlie and the other two Angels.
Meanwhile, there I sat: pasty and landlocked in my Ohio backyard, facing endless summers of stinking humidity and nowhere to swim.
But I was loyal to the social mores of my time, so I dutifully trotted out to my lounge chair, hoping to defy destiny. The sunscreen of this era was a now-laughable SPF 4. And it worked! If I used it, I got absolutely no tan at all. So I often didn’t use it….. and turned bright red.
Alternating between these two extremes, I repeated this futile cycle every summer until I finally left the Midwest, got a job in a beachside resort town, and learned that the only way somebody like me tans is by going to an ocean beach every day with SPF 15. This ushered in a few years of actual tanning – all centered around blissful beach vacations.
Unfortunately, though, a lot has changed, sunwise. We now live in a world dominated by a lack of Ozone, heightened skin cancer awareness, and SPF’s that are rapidly escalating into the stratosphere. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the skin cancer experts are overly alarmist, or anything. But they do seem to be spreading the message that, if we absolutely can’t confine ourselves to subterranean coffins during the daylight hours, we should at least wrap ourselves in Teflon-coated body armor before venturing outside.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure the concern is justified. I am not immune to Fear of the Sun, especially since I’ve been told that, naturally, the bronzed California Girl is not the one with the highest Melanoma risk. Oh no! That would be me. And others like me — all of us with fair skin who never tanned, but burned trying.
Just in case I needed any more proof that irony is the ordering principle of the universe, well, there it is. I will get all the nasty consequences of sun-worshipping without having enjoyed any of the benefits.
Of course, not all the news is terrible. We now have self-tanner! I almost weep when I think how much pain and suffering this product could have spared me, had it only been available in those teen years. We even have it in super-light versions so we don’t have to worry about looking orange or fake, or even obviously “tanned.” These just kind of take the edge off, allowing us to wear shorts without worrying that our fishbelly pallor will frighten innocent bystanders. If, like me, you are able to develop a very light natural tan, these light self-tanners can enhance that and even it out. I know they also help me to be responsible and wear the sunscreen that I should, rather than engaging in risky sun behavior because I want “just a bit” of color.
More importantly, these tanners can give you a little mood lift. For many of us, a “tan” is not just about looks. It captures a feeling — of sunny days, freedom, the beach, a carefree attitude. So much of how we look is really about how we feel. Self-tanners are yet another beauty product that can give us a little pick-me-up. And that’s got to be good, right?
But you knew it was too good to be true. It wasn’t long before disturbing research reports emerged, indicating that the chemicals in self-tanner cause the skin to create more free-radicals when exposed to the sun. Thank you, buzz-kill researchers.
At first I smugly thought I was ok, because my self tanner of choice was Neutrogena’s “Summer Glow,” which also had sunscreen in it. (And not just any sunscreen, but Neutrogena’s own patented, trademarked, top-secret, badass “Helioplex” sunscreen!) Unfortunately, the folks at Neutrogena stopped making this self-tanning product. Clearly, they have been spooked by the research. And judging from their latest product lines, they are now firmly entrenched in the No-SPF-can-ever-be-high-enough camp.
Besides, self-tanner has its problems. It feels sticky and gunky. You can’t really work out with it. I can’t sleep with it on. And there is no good solution for the feet. If you leave it off the feet, then your tan looks noticeably fake. If you put it on the feet, it will start to rub off as soon as you wear shoes. So yeah, you’ll have a nice light tan, but your feet will look like those of a molting reptile.
Last but not least, it’s stinky as hell – for a good 12 hours after you use it or until you take a shower, which you can’t do for 8 hours if you want it to work. I used to not worry about the smell because I figured nobody would know what it was. But of course, everybody knows, because everybody is using it. That should make it ok…… but I still want to preserve the ridiculous illusion that I expend absolutely no time or energy or resources on frivolous beauty matters.
So, up to this point in the spring, I have not yet self-tanned. I expect that I will, eventually, but I am starting to wonder if maybe this is a crutch. Maybe I need to stop fighting my skin’s natural tendencies and work with them, instead. I finally learned to do that with my hair, why not my skin as well?
Maybe my love for tanned skin is outdated, rooted in a 1970’s time warp. I definitely see paler skin on some of the younger folks these days. And it’s not even just the Goths, who figured out how to make pasty skin, social ineptitude, and unpopularity work for them rather than against them (duh – why the hell didn’t I think of that????) No, I’m seeing beautiful, creamy, pristine skin on young girls from all social backgrounds.
But here’s the problem – my skin doesn’t look like theirs. Damn it! My skin has freckles and moles and little blotchy bits here and there, all of which look better (to me) when brightened by just a touch of tanlike color.
And, as if sunscreen and self-tanner and skin-cancer research didn’t cause enough confusion on their own….enter the Great Vitamin D Controversy. By now you’ve heard that, in northern climates (like mine), we may all be deficient in Vitamin D. We’ve even been told that we might want to go outside for 15 minutes a day – with no sunscreen – to absorb some Vitamin D via sunlight on our (unprotected!) arms and legs.
The skin cancer scientists are not happy, of course. In virtually every article I’ve read about getting Vitamin D from sunlight, there is also a displeased quote from the American Cancer Society or the Skin Care Foundation.
Skin cancer is bad for your health, too, they tell us.
You can get Vitamin D from food, they tell us.
The sun is a known carcinogen. they tell us.
Well, ok, but doesn’t the sun also give life to our planet? Fine, I’ll take my antioxidants…. but aren’t free radicals and oxidation caused by the very air that we breathe? Life is fatal, after all!
But I digress. Meanwhile, I have to figure out what to do (or not do) with my skin this week. To self-tan or not to self-tan? I simply can’t decide.
Never mind, I’m going outside. It’s raining. I should be safe.