Blame Coco Chanel. Tanned skin used to be a sign of poverty, with pale skin a mark of style, class and status.

Legend has it that the fashion icon accidentally browned in the sun on a yacht and started a craze that’s endured into the new millennium. Unfortunately, the phrase “healthy tan” has proven to be a tragic contradiction. There is no such thing as a healthy tan – even a light glow is a sign of skin damage.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, cases of life-threatening melanoma increased from 550 in the year 2000, to 740 in 2010, a 34 per cent increase. There has been an additional rise in the other, more treatable forms of skin cancer as well. Even more worrisome has been the dramatic drop in age of cancer development. Doctors are now regularly seeing patients with the deadly form of the disease in their 30s and even in their 20s, cases that were extremely rare a decade or two ago.

Ultra violet skin damage is cumulative over our lifetimes, with the exposure in our childhood and teenage years particularly critical determinants of whether we will one day develop skin cancers. Our skin cells don’t forget. Each serious burn doubles our lifetime risk for developing skin cancer.

All of this explains the concern over teens using tanning beds, and the current drive to ban their use in teens under 18 years of age. This Montreal Gazette article reports that tanning bed usage by people under 35 increases by 75% the risk of developing melanomas. The Canadian Dermatology Association has a compelling video that all teens interested in tanning should see, called Indoor Tanning is Out. They remind us that the World Health Organization has upgraded tanning beds to a level 1 carcinogenic risk, the same category as smoking cigarettes and asbestos.  Yikes.

Having trouble getting the message about sun damage across to your teen? Send them the link to this amazing, awareness-raising video: Dear 16-year-old me. And buy them some cool sunglasses. Coco would approve.

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