Gates: Consider the Consequences of Tanning


Matt Gates, Columnist

Walking down Sheridan during January’s Polar Vortex, I never thought I would make the same walk wearing sandals, shorts and a t-shirt. But I guess seeing that even the Midwest has nice weather to offer will be one of the last great parts of my freshman year experience. However, nothing comes without a price, even nice weather. Too much exposure to the sun’s rays comes with negative health consequences, the most infamous of which is skin cancer.

At least among many Americans, tanning is considered a summer pastime. However, tanning is known to increase one’s risk of skin cancer. Moreover, sun exposure, especially when it leads to blistering sunburn, is most damaging early in life. One blistering sunburn during childhood doubles a person’s risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, later in life. For this reason, the college-aged population should understand the risks that come with tanning.

The idea of a “healthy tan” may come from people who get tanned running outside during the summer or playing sports on the beach. However, for those born with a naturally pale complexion, healthy and tan may be at odds. I have heard of a “Health, Fitness and Recreation Center” near my hometown that includes a tanning room. For someone with a high risk of skin cancer, tanning after a workout is like taking a smoke break at the gym. There is a difference between looking healthy and being healthy.

“You have cancer” are three words no one ever wants to hear. Yet some people seem to think that if their diagnosis is “just skin cancer” they have nothing to worry about. While some patients may be fortunate enough to have skin cancer successfully treated with a comparatively minor procedure, not everyone is so lucky. Melanoma in particular is aggressive and estimated to result in 8,790 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Many people have told me they know they are taking risks by not protecting against UV radiation but they are doing so to avoid another detrimental health condition: vitamin D deficiency. While it is true that UVB rays are involved in the production of vitamin D, it is also true that UVB rays can only result in the production of a limited amount of vitamin D. Dietary sources such as oily fish and supplements are recommended to provide vitamin D.

It is also important to note that white people are not the only ones who can suffer from skin cancer, despite the common misconception. Not only can black, Latino and Asian individuals also develop skin cancer, these groups are generally diagnosed with melanoma later and therefore have lower survival rates. My doctor started lecturing me on the risks of skin cancer when I was old enough to be out on my own and had to apply sunscreen myself. I still get warned about it every year. If I were not white, would doctors have taken the time to explain this to me? It is understandable that someone with light skin and a family history is more in need of this information. However, people should know that anyone can develop skin cancer.

Everyone should be able to make an informed decision about tanning. Moreover, no one should be pressured into tanning. Having a family history of skin cancer, I have never appreciated it when people have told me I shouldn’t worry about sun exposure unless I’m spending a whole day at the beach, I should use a lower SPF or skin cancer is not serious. I would rather go without the freckles and coats of red that peel away back to white.

Northwestern students seem less likely to tan or at least less likely to pressure others to do so. Maybe we really are smarter or at least better informed. Maybe we spend all our time studying. Maybe we are older than we were in high school and know better. Maybe it’s just the Midwest’s weather patterns, and some of us will be tanning at home this summer. At any rate, skin cancer is something to think about this summer.

Luckily, if you are like me and find yourself unable and unwilling to get a fashionable tan, there’s something else you can try. Sunglasses are not only fashionable but also practical: They may help prevent eye cancer. After you finish up classes this year, you might be eager to catch up with your home friends by tanning or relaxing on South Beach if you are staying on campus. We all deserve a beautiful summer after this year of snow, wind and cold. But we also deserve to stay healthy and able to use our NU educations for as many years as possible. 

Matt Gates is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].