Despite the warnings, sun bathing and tanning beds are still in style. Although some people are slowly beginning to decrease their exposure to the sun, being tan is still “cool” and too many folks are still overexposing themselves to UV light. UV exposure today seems to be were tobacco was 20 years ago. For many years it was considered sexy and even healthy to smoke, and today it’s looked at as attractive to be tanned. Both fads are bad for your health or, to put it bluntly, have the potential to kill those who choose to make a habit out of either. The danger of tobacco is pretty clear, although there are still people who senselessly continue to smoke. With the sun issue, it’s really a shame that one out of five people will develop skin cancer but still most don´t care enough about sun radiation exposure.

Have you seen images of sex symbol and icon Marilyn Monroe enveloped in smoke? Or of Ursula Andress, tanned and breathless, running around in a tiny bikini? That’s how the world was back then, during the last century, smoking was sexy and being tan, was hot. But in both cases we have known that being sexy comes at a high price- paid for in premature wrinkles, other skin problems and various types of cancers, warnings that many people ignore. My native country, Argentina, is a perfect example of that for both extremes. Argentine society isn’t only addicted to cigarettes (its tobacco consumption is one of the highest in the Americas), it’s also a fervent lover of the sun.

In a world where the dangers of these popular practices is becoming common knowledge, Argentina’s case represents the very essence of world-wide phenomenon that links skin tone to social status. Until the 1920´s, for example, paleness was the beacon of wealth and beauty: elegant women didn’t have to work or exert themselves physically, and thus sported smooth, white skin. Being tan was looked down upon by the upper classes and women would use masks and parasols to protect themselves from the sun. Coco Chanel was the first to turn the tables, making tan skin stylish. The sun soon transformed into an icon of health and free time and – by definition- a status symbol: being tan meant relaxation, vacation and fun.

Like cigarettes, the tanning craze was quickly embraced and spread by movies. In “La Dolce Vita,” for instance, two women are pictured sunbathing, the epitome of the good life. Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress, Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor part in the new custom, as well. Even countries got caught up in the heat- Spain became a popular vacation spot by marketing its sun, and tourism makes up the greatest part of the country’s income, plus there’s even la Costa del Sol, a Sun Coast. But the writing is on the wall: Too much sun is extremely dangerous.

While I could review the damage that careless sun exposure can cause what I find more interesting to analyze is, however, how such an unhealthy habit has become so instilled in the media, advertising and everyday life. And this new craze is repeating what happened with cigarettes and then some. I know, I know, you’re all probably thinking “but Martín, at least the sun isn’t addictive like cigarettes.” But that’s not true! According to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Dermatology, tanning can create a physical addiction. Scientists believe that exposure to ultraviolet rays may release mood-boosting endorphins- cause for why so many people ignore the risks and stay in the sun longer. In that aspect, the sun can be considered the new tobacco. A trend with a glamorous image that, for many people, apparently outweighs the risk of serious health problems.

Thanks Maria Frick and Abby Feldman for your help in this article.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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