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Sunburn art: could promote unusual tanning practices

The emergence of ‘sunburn art’—creating an image on the skin by applying an adhesive stencil or painting on sunblock before tanning—is a disturbing trend, says Vancouver clinical and cosmetic dermatologist Dr. David Zloty. The practice, he feels, could encourage people to engage in indoor tanning who might not otherwise, as a form of personal artistic expression.

Tanning salon as art studio

Dr. Zloty, the medical director of The Dermatologic Surgery Centre in Vancouver, said that while he has not seen patients in his own clinic sporting these ‘artistic’ tan patterns since his patients tend to comprise an older demographic, his staff have spoken with individuals who have developed suntan ‘tattoos’ at indoor tanning salons.

“In fact, [the tanners who were questioned] said it is sometimes standard practice when you go to a tanning salon now,” Dr. Zloty says.“[The salon] will give you stickers of your choice so that you can decorate your body in whatever way you choose. So I think [the practice of sunburn art] is quite common now.”

To date, Dr. Zloty has not observed the practice among outdoor tanners on Vancouver’s popular beaches. “I think right now it is probably primarily with home tanners with sun lamps or sun beds in a salon. “But I think that if the trend becomes more visible, and there is more media exposure, I would not be surprised if this translates to people putting [stickers] on while they are doing their outdoor tanning,” Dr. Zloty added.

Tanning in non-tanners Everyone he is aware of who reported engaging in this decorative behaviour has already been a chronic tanner, says Dr. Zloty, but he is concerned that media attention may draw new tanners.

“If the decorative look becomes more accepted in youth culture, will that entice others to specifically go to a salon to get this decorative look? Not so much that they are interested in the appearance of their skin in terms of getting a tan, but in terms of the appearance of this so called art on their skin,” he says.

“That would be my concern long-term, but I do not think we have any evidence that is happening now, not yet.”

Regarding the utilization of public education about sun safety in response to this trend, Dr. Zloty suggests there may not be much that can be done to dissuade individuals who are already chronic tanners.

The best approach, he thinks, might be to target individuals who are looking at this practice first as a method of self-expression rather than as a way to add a flourish to existing tanning behaviour.

“For a certain percentage of the population, I think our messages are falling on deaf ears.

“Most of them are aware of the risks but they still feel they look healthier, and they feel better with the tan,” he says. “If they are looking for decorative options, I would rather have them dye their hair and have nice jewellery and do their nails, because those are all solutions that still draw decorative attention to them but carry no longterm

consequences to their overall health and the health of their skin.”

Originially published in The Chronicle of Skin & Allergy (Oct/Nov. 2015; 27(7):1,17)

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