As summer makes itself felt, the need to look tanned and healthy sees gay men take to the beaches and tanning salons. A tan may help you get lucky, but could it also kill you?

When googling the word “tanning” on the Internet, you’re likely to see the same terrifying results I did; a never-ending list of articles and statistics that forewarn certain death should you step out into the sun. For anyone looking for a positive approach to the subject, there’s little here of comfort.

But it seems that no matter how much information we’re bombarded with, the tanned look remains desirable to both celebrities and ordinary people. The media is filled with golden brown skins on show for all. From porn films to Heat magazine, you can’t really look sexy out of clothes if you’re pale and pasty. At least that’s the way we’ve come to think. Few would argue that a bronzed hunk, perhaps with a visible tan line, is indeed a mouth-watering prospect.

Most us know that this perception (admittedly a very powerful one) is largely culturally based, and very much of our times. Pale skin has been in and out of fashion over the centuries, and it’s commonly believed that the tanning trend only came about in the 20’s thanks to French fashion icon Coco Channel. She ushered in the craze with a tan of her own, which was actually, some say, purely accidental.

The fashion took on a new impetus with the post-war middle class prosperity of the 1950’s; while in the past being tanned had been associated with rural labour, now it was a sign of having leisure time to sit by the pool or have holidays at the coast.

The sunbed came into use in the 70s and was initially thought to be a safer way of getting that “healthy” glow, but is now considered by most experts to be more dangerous than a natural tan. In fact, in France, the use of sunbeds is tightly regulated; barring people under 18, disallowing claims of health benefits, and ensuring that trained personnel supervise all sunbed use. There is increasing pressure on health authorities to limit their use. Nevertheless, the industry continues to grow and is worth over $1 Billion in the US alone.

An overwhelmingly growing body of evidence suggests that the tanning trend has resulted in a massive increase in skin cancer around the world. According to the World Health Organisation, around 3 million people are diagnosed with various forms of skin cancer globally. Plus, around 20% of cataracts are though to have been caused by sun exposure. And for some, most frighteningly of all (yes worse than death or blindness), exposure to the sun is often cited as the single most important cause of ageing and wrinkling.

While none of us want to look like a well-used leather handbag, most people simply engage in standard every day denial, largely because the effects of the sun are cumulative, and the results can take decades to become visible; usually when you’re desperate to look young. Isn’t life grand!

The news doesn’t seem to get any better with a recent University of Texas study suggesting that tanning may actually be addictive. Research shows that tanning may result in an increase in endorphins in the body, which enhances a person’s mood. Many people can probably relate to the idea of “feeling good” after a day in the sun, or after a few minutes in a tanning booth. It’s ironic, when you consider that tanned skin is actually skin that has been damaged, sometimes permanently.

Artificial ‘fake’ tans (sprays or creams) have become increasingly popular, but these are often expensive, messy, and no matter what the hype says, still look oddly unnatural. Interestingly, judging by the popularity of these tans at film awards ceremonies, an artificial orange hue to one’s skin may become all the rage. Could the fake tan, replace the real thing? Perhaps, but probably only when a cheap and easy to use true tanning pill hits the market (hallelujah!).

While most medical professionals and organisations advise against tanning, this is unlikely to stop most people from taking in a few rays. Plus, statistics don’t often play out as they should in our everyday life. We all know people that have tanned for decades, yet look fantastic, and have no ill effects. Just as we know someone that smoked 40 cigarettes a day until they were 90 and died of food poisoning at a wedding.

Tanning will not cause everyone that indulges in it to develop skin cancer, but it certainly does seem to increase the chance of this happening to a great extent, especially among people that are more at risk. These tend to be pale, develop freckles and have usually struggled to tan (often resulting in burning) throughout their life. If this describes you, then you’re classified as having a Skin Photo Type I or II, and tanning of any kind is not recommended.

Of course the majority of South African gay men were blessed with a naturally dark skin. And for them the subject is probably one that elicits a wry smile. But don’t be too cocky, just because you’re naturally brown doesn’t mean that exposure to the sun wont harm you. Statistics reveal that skin cancer rates are also on the up among those with black skin, although a naturally darker skin does minimise the harmful effects of UV to a large extent.

Like so many things in life, tanning is a personal choice in which you weigh up the risk against the benefits, such as, in this case, feeling more attractive and having increased confidence. Race car drivers or sky divers, may say that we’re all players in the great lottery of life; we’re going to die one way or the other. And for some, ‘kicking the bucket’ with a good tan may be just as important as doing so with a clean pair of underwear. And who am I to disagree.

If you’re going to do it, then this what the experts recommend to minimise the potentially nasty consequences.

General Tanning Guidelines

  • If you are pale, burn easily in the sun, have many moles, struggle to tan, and easily develop freckles, don’t tan.
  • Avoid direct or prolonged exposure to the sun when it is at its strongest, between 10am and 4pm, and especially during midday.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and UVA/UVB.
  • Wear sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection.

Sunbed Tanning Guidelines

  • If you are pale, burn easily in the sun, have many moles, struggle to tan, and easily develop freckles, this is not recommended.
  • No one under the age of 18 should use a sunbed.
  • Don’t assume that developing a base tan in a salon will protect you from the effects of sun exposure. Research reveals that the effect is minimal at best.
  • Always use UV Radiation protective eyewear.
  • Make sure that any medication that you may be taking, or cosmetics that you use, do not make your skin overly sensitive to UV exposure.
  • Do not expose your skin to natural sunlight or a sunbed for at least 48 hours after tanning.

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