Why Sunscreen Needs to Be the New Spray Tan

When you’re laying on a table getting a biopsy of a mole on your butt, you inevitably start thinking about your life choices.

It’s not like I didn’t grow up with all the warnings about skin cancer and wearing your sunscreen. It’s just that you never think it will happen to you.

Like many other problems in our society, the idolization of perfect, tanned bodies began young. Even as young as eleven or twelve, girls would talk about wanting to get a tan on their Spring Break. Going back to school tan in the fall was as much of a badge of honor as wearing makeup at that age: something adult that divided the children from the pre-teens.

You’ll even find this behavior in adults who should know better. How often does someone come back from a vacation on the beach and we compliment them on their tan with a note of admiration in our voice? When have you ever heard someone say (sincerely), “You’re looking pale. Great job with the sunblock, bro. Show those UV rays who’s boss!”

It’s not like my mother didn’t put sunblock on me. She did. It’s just that no one has really invented a “stay-all-day” formula that really does a good job of protecting your skin. It’s as much of a unicorn as smudge-proof eyeliner. In addition to the need for constant re-application, there was the smell and the sticky, greasiness of the sunblock. You couldn’t wait for it to disappear off your skin. And if a reapplication got forgotten, so much the better.

One of the dermatologist I went to see over the years took one look at my blindingly-white stomach skin and declared me “about as pale as they come.” Not something that was news to me. And something that definitely incited me at one point in my life to buy some tanning oil and sit out in the backyard with it. It only happened once and I didn’t burn that particular time. But I’ve definitely had my share of bad burns. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that, “even one blistering burn may double [your] lifetime risk of melanoma.”

In the way that “smoking kills” has become the catch-phrase of the anti-cigarette campaign, “tanning kills” needs to become the catch-phrase of this generation. Skin cancer is still cancer after all. And as easy as it is to say “everyone gets cancer eventually” skin cancer can strike when you’re young. And contrary to popular belief, all races are susceptible. Though the CDC’s graphs show an increased incidence rate of skin cancer among white people, the incidence rates for other races aren’t at zero either.

Skin cancer isn’t a white person’s disease. It isn’t even a woman’s disease. It’s a people with skin disease.

From the CDC
From the CDC

Back to me: I’ve just had my sixth, seventh, and eighth mole biopsies. At this point, I know all the signs of troublesome moles. In case you need a rundown, here are the ABCDE’s of Melanoma:

A-Asymmetry

B-Border

C-Color

D-Diameter

E-Evolving

That last one? Evolving? That is the key to spotting “bad” moles early. Never noticed that mole before? Think it looks darker? Wondering why there’s a scab on it? Make an appointment with the dermatologist ASAP.

Out of my eight mole biopsies, four have come back with a biopsy result of “indeterminate or atypical”. What does that diagnosis mean in everyday terms? “We have no idea what that is, but weren’t not waiting around to find out. Go book your appointment with your surgeon in the lobby.”

I never had high hopes of being a model. So far (knock wood) my skin scrapes and surgical removals have generally been on my back, chest, and shoulders — places I typically keep covered. Most of the scars I can’t even see when I look in the mirror. And I’m grateful for that. But every time I go back in and a little more of me gets sliced and diced, I can’t help, but feel sad.

Americans spend over $12 billion a year on tanning products. But only $1.3 billion on sunscreen.

We spend 9 times as much to give ourselves cancer as we do to protect ourselves from it.

True, some of these tanning products are “safe”. Spray tans and sunless tanning products make up a good portion of the tanning industry dollars. But here’s two things to keep in mind:

1) Those sunless tanners can never really replicate the golden, sun-kissed glow of a natural tan.

2) Spray tans cost money. A lot more money that a bottle of tanning oil and a free afternoon by the pool.

The obsession with achieving the perfect tan begins early. At an age where not many have the disposable income and the transport to get regular spray tans. But they sure do have access to the sun.

I was never a true sun worshiper. Sure, I went outside for walks and runs and to ride my horse at the barn. Once or twice a summer I went to the pool with my friends. Those pool trips were about the only time I spent intentionally trying to tan. But that lost its glimmer when it became obvious to me that I would only ever become pink and painful for my troubles. I started buying the highest SPF sunblock the drugstore sold. Sure, there might not be much difference between SPF 85 and SPF 100, but if it costs the same, why not spring for that incremental bit of difference?

I’d love to say that I’m repentant now. That I slather myself down with sunblock thrice daily. But I don’t. And here’s why

Those same complaints I had about sunblock as a kid are still true now. It smells, it’s oily, it’s sticky, it makes your skin look weird, it gets on your clothes and in your hair. I’ve tried various brands that offer promises of this, that, and the other: “Dry-touch!” “No Mess!” “Fragrance-Free!” And all fall far short of the mark they’re aiming for.

Want to know what I think the solution to sunblock is? Injectable sunblock. It may sound crazy, but if you could be injected with something that would shield your skin from the sun and you needed an injection every six months instead of every day, how much more doable does that sound? Something that doesn’t need to be reapplied just because you got sweaty or went in the water. Something that won’t ruin your clothes or make you smell funny.

So why hasn’t sunblock improved in more than twenty years? For the same reason a lot of problems aren’t fixed: the money isn’t in it.

Until we stop worshipping tanned bodies and start photographing models with a smear of zinc across their nose and skin the color they were given, rather than the golden goodness they were cooked to, the money will never be in sunblock. Sure, the industry is growing. But just as nicotine patches and e-cigarettes became a thing only AFTER billions of dollars were spent on anti-smoking campaigns, our sunblock situation is not likely to improve without some heavy-weight backers, celebrity support, and some real money.