August 21, 2005

IT'S BEEN well-documented that society's ideal of the sleek and slender physique can prove fatal to young people who literally starve themselves in a twisted quest for self-esteem.

Now it seems something similar may be happening when teens and 20-somethings set out to damage their skin in pursuit of what is erroneously regarded as the healthy glow of a tan.

Recent studies report two clearly related findings:

That tanning can be psychologically addictive, particularly among the young, because they think it makes them look and feel better.

That skin cancer is reportedly twice as common among the under-40 crowd, especially women, as it was 30 years ago.

Young people are, of course, notoriously hard to warn about anything. They consider themselves indestructible. It might be useful, though, for the already old and wrinkled to exert whatever influence they can muster, particularly on fragile-faced pre-teens.

Anybody who's ever gotten a nasty burn knows the sun is nothing to mess with. But it's more dangerous than ever now because so much of the protective ozone layer has been destroyed by greenhouse gases. Even if there's no burn, the skin damage known as tan can often be a prelude to cancer.

Another more modern threat is the tanning bed, initially advertised as not harmful but proven since to be anything but. Widely available year round, tanning beds beckon those who want an athletic appearance of robust health. But lying on a tanning bed is like putting your body on a rotisserie.

The American Medical Association is urging states to prohibit the use of tanning salons by people under 18, which makes some sense. The most effective solution, though, might be for a pasty-white complexion to become the fashion ideal.

Meanwhile, companies that make fake-tanning potions, which are becoming increasingly natural-looking, should ramp up their advertising to the youth market.

"Look good now, and postpone the day when you turn into wrinkly old Mom or Dad." What kid wouldn't go for that?

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