At the end of a day at Ocean City High School, Amy Speicher and her friends would walk out the building doors, up to the Boardwalk and directly onto the beach. For the next couple of hours, they would lie on their towels in the hot sun and try to achieve the perfect tan.
But that was more than 20 years ago. The 18-year-old Speicher did not realize her sun exposure with limited protection, both on the beach and in tanning beds, would later lead to two diagnoses of melanoma, the most dangerous kind of skin cancer.
Speicher, now 41, was an active participant of New Jersey’s tanning culture, where the popularity of achieving a tan year-round has led television late-night hosts to joke about our “orange” pallor. With a potential new ban against minors using indoor tanning beds, some health advocates are hoping this is the beginning of the end to overtanning.
“Because Ocean City High School was on water, we’d finish our finals and go right to the beach,” she said. “That’s just how it was. You didn’t put sun block on back then. We just didn’t do it. We know so much more now.”
Researchers, scientists and physicians have studied the short and long-term effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun and tanning beds for decades. What we know now is that harmful consequences can appear immediately, as with sun poisoning, and later in life, as with skin cancer.
Speicher, of the Seaville section of Upper Township, was always a beach kid, she said, having grown up not far from the shore. She regularly tanned on the beach throughout her teens and 20s and went indoor tanning to get a base tan up until her 30s.
She was driving to work in 2012 and found herself scratching a mole on her leg. She wasn’t too concerned, she said, but went to a dermatologist who had it removed and tested. Test results told her it was stage-one melanoma. In 2014, the melanoma returned as stage three.
Health officials over the years have recommended that people limit their sun exposure and wear sunscreen with higher Sun Protection Factors, but it wasn’t until December that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proposed banning tanning beds nationwide for all people younger than 18 years old.
Dr. Bruce Brod, clinical professor of dermatology at Penn Medicine, said research over the years has shown early users of tanning beds are mostly young women, many of whom started as teenagers. He said for some, it can become addictive, even if they know the future risks.
“There are no health benefits to tanning,” Brod said. “The only reason skin tans is because it’s the only way it can protect itself from further damage of the sun or UV rays. It’s like a protective mechanism.”
When Brod first started treating patients 20 years ago, he rarely saw cases of melanoma in young people, but that has changed. The dermatologist said the idea that getting a base tan will reduce future sun burning and skin damage is nothing but myth.
“A base tan protection is so very minimal,” he said. “It’s like saying, I’m going to go and start smoking a pack a day in two weeks. To prepare my lungs for that, I’ll smoke a little bit every day so that when I hit it hard, I won’t cough as much.”
So why do people seem so preoccupied with having tan skin year-round if it’s so harmful? Jerod Stapleton, a behavioral scientist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, has been searching for those answers.
“I definitely think its culture-bound in some ways,” he said. “There is this cultural idea in the U.S. that there is value toward having tan skin. In the ’80s, it was all about bleach-blonde hair and tan skin. Tanning is attractive, we can pinpoint when this started. But 150 years ago, pale skin was more attractive.”
In New Jersey, there is a beach culture, Stapleton said, and tanning is a big part of that. Whether people are tanning on the beaches or in beds, teenagers likely spend a lot of time exposed to UV rays. Tanning has become so popular in New Jersey that, for the rest of the country, overtanning is one of the stereotypes about the state.
State tanning laws were thrust into the spotlight after Patricia Krentcil, of Nutley, Essex County, made headlines when she was accused of putting her 5-year-old daughter in a tanning bed. She earned the nickname “Tanning Mom” from comedians and tabloid writers.
“Have you heard about the lady who got arrested for bringing her 5-year-old to a tanning salon? First off, guess what state she’s from?” Jimmy Kimmel asked the audience of his late-night show in 2012. “New Jersey. That’s right. Is that even a crime in New Jersey? In New Jersey, I think they call that day care.”
Not long after, Gov. Chris Christie signed updated tanning bed laws to ban minors under the age of 17 from using tanning beds. Older teens also needed to obtain written consent from a parent or guardian before tanning. New proposed CDC recommendations would ban tanning beds nationally for everyone under the age of 18.
The ban may save people from developing cancer later in their lives, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Not all people who use tanning beds will develop skin cancer. Some people who develop melanoma were never concerned with getting tan in the first place.
Richard Corcoran, 72, of Egg Harbor Township, and his son, in his 30s, both developed melanoma after years of spending time outside, playing sports or working at summer jobs.
The two now make sure to apply extra sunscreen while outdoors.
And Speicher makes sure she wears a hat that shadows her face outdoors. She sits under an umbrella at the beach to protect her fair skin and teaches her two children about the necessity of sun protection.
“There’s definitely more awareness out there, but there needs to be more,” she said. “I’m now working with the schools to come and teach children about it. When you’re young, you’re more vain and want to look good all the time. Why can’t we think, ‘I’m pale and proud of it?’”