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Is Tan Mom just today's Don Draper?

  • Los Angeles-based dermatologist says 'Tan Mom' encourages tanning the same way 'Mad Men's' Don Draper once encouraged smoking
  • Dr. Ava Shamban says while tanning and smoking might seem chic, both are linked to cancer
Is Tan Mom just today's Don Draper?
Ava Shamban

Editor’s note: Ava Shamban is a board certified dermatologist based in Santa Monica, California. She is the owner of the medical practice “Ava MD” and is the author of “Heal Your Skin.”

The tabloids and late night comedians are thanking “Tan Mom” Patricia Krentcil for some material they can poke fun at. But her complexion and her tanning habit are no laughing matter. Assuming that Patricia is not guilty of allegedly taking her five-year-old into a tanning booth and her daughter indeed suffered a sunburn from playing outside, there are two real issues for discussion that this case brings to light: 1) the social norms and lax regulations encouraging Patricia’s possible tanning addiction; and 2) the nonchalant attitude so many parents still have regarding kids and sun exposure.

It seems so many of us, especially young women, schedule a weekly trip to the tanning salon the same way we get our nails done or make time to work out at the gym. This reminds me of the laissez-faire attitude we had towards smoking and the tobacco industry in the ‘60’s (when the average person’s life span, by the way, was somewhere in their 60’s). Today, reality TV icons walk around with their year-round sun-kissed glow and praise tanning, holding up a ‘beauty norm’ for young people to emulate—the same way the Don Draper generation viewed smoking as not only 100% socially acceptable but also chic.

Even though we’ve understood the link between UV radiation and skin cancer, for some decades now, people are still tanning more. This way of thinking has got to change. It’s a matter of life and death, and here are a few statistics I hope will drive this point home:

1) The indoor tanning industry has an annual estimated revenue of $5 billion.

2) On an average day, more than one million Americans use tanning salons.

3) Ultraviolet Radiation is a proven human carcinogen. However, currently the UV tanning beds are regulated by the FDA as Class I medical devices, the same designation given elastic bandages and tongue depressors.

4) The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an affiliate of the World Health Organization, classifies ultraviolet (UV) tanning devices in its Group 1—its list of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances. The Group 1 list also includes cigarettes, plutonium, and solar UV radiation.

5) Indoor ultraviolet (UV) tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors.

6) People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.

7) Skin cancer among women, especially young women and teens (age 16 - 29), is on the rise. And rising 3.2% per year (as opposed to 2.6% annually for men).

The real issue here is not whether Krentcil’s accusers are ‘fat, ugly and jealous,’ whether her complexion looks like she ‘fell down a chimney,’ or even whether or not she is a good mother. It’s whether or not she will even be around much longer to be a mother. And whether we, as a society, can start understanding we have to protect our children with sunscreen and protective clothing the same way we put them in car seats and keep them away from second hand smoke.

Even one serious sunburn during childhood doubles the risks of developing skin cancer as an adult. Letting a fair-skinned, red-haired child (like Krentcil’s daughter) play in the sun unprotected is a grave issue of negligence on its own. 

As unfortunate as it is, hopefully, Krentcil’s circumstance will shed light on how serious an issue tanning and skin cancer really is and the simple preventative measures that millions of Americans can take for healthy, beautiful skin.

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