Dec. 8, 2010 -- The Jersey Shore uber-tan aesthetic may not be for everyone, but it seems that even for non-Guidettes, having a tan makes them sexier, according to a study from Emory University.
Researchers used the popular attractiveness-rating website HotorNot.com to gauge whether "hotness" scores would change when the same woman was shown with her natural complexion and then with a tan.
Using Photoshop, 45 photos of women aged 21 to 35 were doctored to look tan. The original photos and the doctored versions were posted to the site at different times. The researchers found that the darker version was twice as likely to be rated as more attractive.
Of course, tan enthusiasts would say that you don't need science to figure that one out.
"When I look in the mirror I feel more attractive when I'm darker, like my face is prettier. It's 100 percent a confidence boost for me," says Lauren Kafka, 31, of Miami, who uses a tanning bed three times a week to keep up her golden glow.
Kafka is aware of the skin cancer risks associated with her tanning bed habit, but she says the risk is worth it. "I wouldn't want a relative or someone I cared about to do it, but I'm willing to take the risk for myself," she says.
Campaigns by health organizations like the American Academy of Dermatology to warn the public about the skin cancer risks of tanning with have had limited success. About 28 million Americans still frequent tanning booths each year and tanning-bed use among teens has only been growing.
"People think that tanned individuals are more attractive, healthier looking, and it's incredibly difficult to get someone not to do something that perceive as providing them with a positive perception. It was the same thing with smoking. Especially younger people have a hard time seeing themselves as getting older and having to deal with these risks," says Dr. Audrey Kunin, dermatologist and founder of DERMADoctor Inc.
From Peaches and Cream to Bronze Goddess
In the last century, tanned skin has done a 180 in public perception. A tan used to connote a working class person who had to do manual labor outdoors, but the Industrial Revolution started to change all that, says Mark Leary, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.
"The Industrial Revolution moved the working class indoors to factories. It was the rich who could afford vacations to places like Florida. That's where the shift started," he says.
Until recently, many doctors also felt that the sun conferred many health benefits, Leary says -- so much so that mothers in the 1930s and 1940s were sometimes told to leave their babies out in the sun for a certain amount each day.
While sun exposure does help the body produce necessary vitamin D, supplements and natural sources of the vitamin in one's diet, such as cheese and eggs, do the job just as well, says Kunin, so there isn't really a medical basis for tanner people looking healthier. Even a few minutes of sun exposure -- from walking the dog or sitting in one's car on a daily commute -- provides the average individual with enough UV exposure to make ample vitamin D, she says.
The advent of indoor tanning salons gave Americans a fast and relatively inexpensive way to get tan year-round, no trip to the tropics necessary.
"Now we know that there's no clear reason why tan ought to be perceived as healthier or as a sign of wealth, but we just haven't lost it as a signifier of a leisure class yet," Leary says.
Stemming Tanning Trend Tricky
Numerous studies have linked overexposure to UV light with skin cancer, especially through the use of tanning beds, but controlling Americans' desire to bronze has proved difficult, dermatologists say.
"All of my younger melanoma patients, girls in their early twenties, have been tanning bed users," says Kunin. She tries to put things into perspective by pointing out that twenty minutes in a tanning bed is the same as an entire day on the beach with no sun block, but she says that until they have skin cancer, it's hard to get people really to understand the risk.
Even when people logically understand the health risks involved in certain behaviors, that doesn't mean that they will respond rationally, says Clay Routledge, professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.
Routledge has studied how tanning behavior changes when people are sensitized to the health risks they take, or just sensitized to death in general.
"No one would be surprised that girls say they tan because it makes them look good. What is surprising is that if you remind them that it puts them at higher risk for cancer, we find that it makes them want to tan more," he says.
Because tanning boosts confidence and is perceived as socially desirable, Routledge says that it is a psychologically comforting thing to do. Ironically, when doctors try to scare people away from something, often they will unconsciously respond by seeking comfort in precisely the behavior that puts them at risk.
What this suggests, he notes, is that as with anti-smoking campaigns, scaring the public with the threat of death and disease just won't work. Instead, the social desirability of the behavior has to be modified.
And the trend towards a paler beauty may be on its way, says Dr. Suephy Chen, associate professor of Dermatology at Emory and lead author on the HotorNot.com study. " I think a lot of the hot celebrities right now are actually quite pale, and there may be a trend towards that, but that is going to be so slow."
That's not to say that public awareness of the skin cancer risks of tanning falls on completely deaf ears. Kafka says she has to hide her tanning bed habit from her family and friends because she knows they will give her a hard time.
She does go for twice-yearly body scans with her dermatologist to check for any possible skin cancers, and she says sometimes her fears about getting skin cancer make her skip tanning for brief periods, though she always goes back.
"It's just that important to me to look good, feel good, feel confident. I'm sure that would change if my dermatologist found something, though."