In the age of appearance-obsessed television shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras,” “Jersey Shore,” and the “Real Housewives,” all of which feature heavily tanned girls and women, it surprised me little that a mother would be arrested and charged with felony child endangerment for taking her five-year old daughter into a tanning booth with her at a New Jersey salon.
Whether it happened as authorities claim or not (the woman, 44-year old Patricia Krentcil, insists her daughter Anna got sunburned while playing outside), the case reeks of hypocrisy and of ignorance. On shows like TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras,” parents and caretakers are filmed primping veritable toddlers with makeup, hair products, and spray-on tanners, all laden with chemicals that pose health risks to every human, but especially to growing children. Why haven’t these other adults been arrested, and charged with the same crimes as Krentcil? The sustained public outrage at her actions may be genuine, but it also seems selective.
It goes without saying that young children, whose sunburns can lead to greater incidences of melanoma as adults, should not be tanning for vanity or any other purpose. But how bad is sun or tanning bed exposure, really, and how good are so-called “sunless” tanning lotions, gels, and sprays?
For all the negative press it has gotten over the last few decades, the sun remains the body’s best and most potent supplier of vitamin D. Among other health benefits, vitamin D has been shown to lower the risks of diabetes, heart and kidney disease, and various types of cancer. When the body makes vitamin D following UV light exposure, it is called vitamin D3 sulfate, and experts believe it provides many more health benefits than unsulfated vitamin D3 supplements, which are taken orally.
UV light comes from the sun, and it also comes from tanning beds—not all of which are evil. As renowned osteopath Dr. Joseph Mercola explained in a recent article on his website, vitamin D can safely be gleaned from tanning bed use, as long as the bed emits less of the dangerous UVA rays than sunlight; uses electric rather than magnetic ballasts, which are known sources of electromagnetic fields that can contribute to cancer; and extreme care is taken to avoid a sunburn. He also explains how to use the sun therapeutically, to optimize your vitamin D levels.
This typically means exposing enough of your unclothed skin surface to get a slight pink color on your skin. Your exact time will vary radically depending on many variables, such as your skin color, time of day, season, clouds, altitude and age. The key principle is to never get burned, and for many people, this means no more than 10-20 minutes of sun exposure.
Vitamin D deficiency is rampant, and has been linked to cancers of the colon, breast, and prostate, as well as osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, and hypertension. It is a widespread problem, owing to the simple fact that human beings do not get as much sun exposure as we used to. And while the risk of contracting melanoma remains, a recent study out of Norway concluded that the overall health benefit of improving vitamin D levels by carefully increasing UV exposure might be more important than the possibly increased risk of contracting melanoma.
The active ingredient in most sunless tanners is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, which reacts with dead cells on the skin’s outermost layer to temporarily darken the skin’s appearance. DHA, a sugar derived from plants like beets and sugarcane, was approved by the FDA for topical use – meaning applied as a cream – in the 1970s.
Yet over the last decade or so, it has become common practice for tanning salons to offer the option of spraying self-tanner on the body, so as to achieve a more even color. According to the Mayo Clinic, the risks of inhaling DHA through the nose or mouth remain unknown. (So do the possible effects of letting it seep into your skin – but I digress.)
Additionally, many self-tanners—cream, spray, or otherwise—contain harmful parabens, preservatives that can affect the body’s hormone-producing endocrine system. What’s more, the chemical fragrances used in these products commonly contain volatile organic compounds, which can cause allergies and trigger asthma attacks.
There are plenty more negatives about self-tanning agents (DHA is also believed to contain trace amounts of lead, mercury, and arsenic), and nothing terribly positive about them. Sure, you’ll avoid the relatively small chance of contracting melanoma from UV rays—but might sunless tanners actually increase other health risks? It remains to be seen.
Finally, nobody should drag a five-year old child into a tanning booth with them. Similarly, none of us should be so misinformed as to totally write off the possibility that restricted exposure to UV rays—when done carefully—might help more than it hurts.
Deirdre Imus, Founder of the site devoted to environmental health, dienviro.org, is President and Founder of The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center™ at Hackensack University Medical Center and Co-Founder/Director of the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer. She is a New York Times best-selling author and a frequent contributor to FoxNewsHealth.com, Fox Business Channel and Fox News Channel. Check out her website at dienviro.org. 'Like' her Facebook page here.