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STYLE: LOOKS : Denial in the Sun

August 15, 1993|NINA MALKIN

Tanning. The last taboo. If you're tan, then your IQ must be lower than the SPF of the sunscreen you'd be using if you had any brains. And if you're not stupid, then you've just been out in the sun too long.

I know. I'm one of those people who, despite all the perils, still goes for the gold. Come summer, I can't wait to put down the bikini straps and bake, checking my suit bottom to evaluate the progress of my "lines." I'm certain that a tan makes my eyes bluer and my teeth whiter; even my voice is more mellifluous.

To most of the medical community, however, we tanners are in denial. "Unprotected sun exposure is similar to unsafe sexual habits," says Arthur G. Miller, a psychology professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who's researched the subject. "A person's desire for physical attractiveness often supersedes his value of good health. This is particularly true of tanning."

All I know is that when I bask, it makes me feel better. And I'm not alone. "It's spiritually uplifting," says Philip Barbour, a sun lover I found stretched out on a Westside beach. "You're feeling down, you get a little tan . . . then you're not so down."

Much of the appeal of suntanning is just being at the beach; in fact, many tanners says it's their love of the seashore--not necessarily the pursuit of the even glow--that draws them. "The tan is incidental," insists Suzan Crane, who owns a music industry PR firm. "When I go to the beach, it's my private time. I love the sound of the waves--it's so serene, it calms me down, and feeling the sun on my skin is like a security blanket."

But addiction to the sun has its price. What confirmed tanners have to do, says Dr. Paul Smith, a Santa Monica dermatologist, is commit to "rigorous observation." "Melanoma and skin cancer can be corrected if caught early enough," he says. "Photo-aging, or wrinkling, though not reversible, is modifiable through treatment with Retin-A and alpha hydroxy acids."

Today's tanners can also partly compensate with conscientious skin care. Exfoliation to stave off the thickening of the skin is important, according to Sheila Cleary, an aesthetician at the Burke Williams spa in Santa Monica. She also recommends using a moisturizer with no mineral oil or lanolin, as both leach nutrients. And sun spots can be treated with hydroquinine.

Most tanners have curbed their sunning to a degree. "I never used a sunscreen before last year," says Mary Carter, a confirmed beachgoer. "I've succumbed to the pressure."

And me? Even though my husband insists "sunscreen is for sissies," I compromise: It's SPF 15 on the face (plus a bronze-tinted moisturizer), but I bake unslathered from the neck down. paranoia sets in--"Is that a funny-looking freckle or not?"--I just turn over.

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