On a sunny afternoon in June, Mark Davis is peeling off the top of his wetsuit after taking a swim at La Jolla Shores. Davis, 23, just returned to San Diego after graduating from Humboldt State University, but his skin is dark enough to convince you he'd never left. "I'm actually here to go swimming, not surfing." At six feet and 150 pounds, Davis's build is a bit more slight than the surfers here.
Unlike many beachgoers, Davis's tan is of little if any concern to him. "I honestly don't think it's that important to get a tan. You can have an excess of anything. I like a natural tan, but tan people who overdo it can look hideous, especially an artificially brilliant tan. I would definitely consider marrying a fair-skinned woman. In fact, I really like redheads, who are usually pretty pale."
Davis says that he's never consciously tried to get tan, that it's just a by-product of his lifestyle. "I try to go swimming every day -- if not at the beach, then at the pool. It's just that I'm out when the sun's at its peak, around 1:00 or so. I'm not really susceptible to skin cancer because I'm naturally dark. I'm half Lebanese, a dark-skinned person, and I don't really get burned. I'm low-risk." In spite of his confidence against burning, his dark skin has a red hue. "Well, I have gotten sunburned, but I know my limits. That's why I have the wetsuit."
Noah Diaz, 20, is throwing a Frisbee with his friend. Diaz is 5´9´´ tall, 145 pounds, and wearing a T-shirt, even though the sun is out. A Santee resident and student at Cuyamaca College, Diaz drives far to live the beach lifestyle. "Tans definitely look better to me, especially when looking at the opposite sex. It's something about the shine -- it just makes everything look a lot better. I might consider marrying a woman with fair skin, depending on the woman, but it would help out with the physical attraction is she were tan."
Diaz says that the legs are the most important part of the body to keep tanned. "You can be wearing shorts and still have your shirt on and have the tan." More concerned with tanning than Davis, Diaz occasionally uses lotions. "A lot of my friends use Banana Boat and a lot of girls that I know. Probably the best time of day to tan is between 11:00 and 3:30. After that, the sun's going down and not hitting you too hard in the target areas." Keeping the right look also makes it necessary for Diaz to shave more than his face. "You gotta keep the chest trimmed. I don't have much hair there anyway, but it just looks a little better if you shave it."
Diaz knows about melanoma, but it doesn't keep him from coming to the beach at least twice a week, where he spends an average of four hours each time. "It's important and everything, but I'm not too stressed about it, which I probably should be. I should use oil and lotion more than I do, but I think they're good for fair-skinned people, because you don't want to get skin cancer. I see older people at my job with skin cancers. My mom and dad comment about me getting darker, but it's no major deal for them. Sometimes my friends compliment me for getting tan, but not strangers. I've got a buddy that goes to a tanning salon, but it looks different. I've seen some girls come out looking orange."
Zach Shepard, 16, could easily pose for a California postcard. At 6´3´´ and 190 pounds, Shepard is muscular, athletic, and deeply tanned. A student at Santana High School, he plays football, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. As he plays paddle ball with three bikini-clad girls, he appears not to have a care in the world -- but he cares about tanning. "If people are pale, they don't look very good. I would never consider marrying a girl who wasn't tan. I'm not attracted to pale women."
When asked what the most important part of the body to have tanned is, Shepard's thoughts immediately drift to the opposite sex. "Her shoulders and arms -- the upper body. For me, it's probably the upper body and torso. I don't use any tanning lotions, but the best time to work on your tan is between 1:00 and 3:00. Guys don't really have a choice -- girls try to get tan, but for guys, it just happens." Like Diaz, Shepard says that hairy chests are out, and he has shaved his for a smoother look, as well as his legs.
Shepard is not familiar with the term "melanoma," and when it is explained, he doesn't seem to care. "I don't really think about skin cancer too much. I'm not really worried about it. I've had a bad sunburn before. I couldn't put any lotion on or anything. Even aloe vera gel hurt. My mom's pretty tanned too. My mom's jealous of my tan, and my dad kind of makes fun of me. He tells me I look like a black man with two white parents, and my brothers tell me I'm adopted!" Shepard spends an average of three days a week at the beach and is usually in the sun for three hours.
On the same afternoon South Mission Beach is nearly deserted. A few high school-age girls are lying on towels, talking on their cell phones, but their boyfriends are nowhere to be found. A lone visitor from Salt Lake City, John Witucki, 23, lies face down on his towel after a swim. "I'm just here on vacation. I'll be to the beach every day. Even at home, I'm usually at the pool, especially on my days off. In the summer I'll spend a couple of hours per day."
Another postcard candidate, Witucki, is six feet tall, 195 pounds, and bulging with muscle, even though he doesn't play any sports. "I think a tan helps people look better. If it's between being really pasty-white and tan, I think the tan look is always better, but I would still marry a fair-skinned woman."
Unlike his native counterparts, Witucki seems less self-conscious and more at ease. He also uses sunscreen, something few other guys admit to. "I know what melanoma is. You have to take it seriously. You want to put some sunscreen on, especially at the high-UV hours, but if you tan a lot, and you don't burn as much, I don't think your risk is as high. I've been sunburned, but not to the point where I'm blistered or anything."
Tanning seems to be a part of Witucki's culture, as he claims his parents tan a lot themselves. He says the most important part of the body to keep tanned is the chest area. "It's probably the best-looking area to be tan. You can get away with white legs. The best time is when the UVs are the highest, around noon to 2:00."
The darkest man at Mission Beach has to be Said Souikane, 31. A native of Morocco, Souikane's race helps a bit in his tanning, but he admits he is much darker now than when he arrived in America eight years ago.
An aspiring professional volleyball player, Souikane has just finished an intense four-man game with three well-tanned friends. They are all muscular and on the trim side. "I'm 6´1´´ and weigh 182." His friend teases at him: "He's a professional player, but it's not at volleyball!"
Like most of the other guys interviewed, Souikane uses no lotions, even though he spends hours at the beach every day. He also knows older volleyball players who have had cancer spots removed from their skin, but he doesn't seem concerned. "I know you should use sunscreen and stay out of the sun, but playing volleyball, we have no choice. We have to be here. I have no fear, trust me." His parents in Morocco are worried about his exposure and frequently warn him to stay out of the sun.
Souikane thinks people look better tanned and is only attracted to tanned women. It is especially important to him that one's face is tan. When asked if guys ever compliment each other on their tans, he laughs. "Not really. That's for the girls! Girls do compliment me."
The compliments that a good tan offers can be costly, according to Dr. Jeff Eaton. Eaton, 34, is a head and neck surgeon who specializes in skin cancer and reconstructive and cosmetic surgery at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines' Cancer Center. Eaton describes the cancer risk of smoking as a mathematical equation. "Skin cancer is a function of UV exposure times time -- the amount of sun times the duration of time. It's a lot like smoking -- the amount of smoke times how long you've been smoking. It just all adds up and gives you an increased risk."
Another parallel tanning shares with smoking is the premature aging factor, or early wrinkling. "People who are sun-exposed have much less collagen and more wrinkles. Collagen is the substance in between cells that gives skin its elasticity. A baby, for example, has fresh, plump, soft cheeks -- almost rubbery. They've got lots of collagen. If you pinch its cheeks, they move right back into place. Now if you do that to an 80-year-old, the skin is thin and has no recoil. It doesn't go back. It's 'look good now, pay later' -- which is what youth is about!"
Sun exposure is literally an attack upon the body's largest organ. "Your skin is comprised of the epidermis, which is the outermost layer, and the dermis, which is just below the epidermis. It's your interface with the world. It protects us from the outside elements, water, wind, temperature. When someone starts tanning, the skin cells are stimulated to produce melanin. The pigment of melanin is perceived as a tan. It's kind of complex, but it damages the part of the cells that produce collagen."
Fair-skinned people may be at a higher risk for skin cancer, but Dr. Eaton contends that dark-skinned people are not off the hook. "Fair skinned individuals have less protection than dark-skinned individuals, who have a sort of natural sunblock. But dark-skinned people can get skin cancer. Part of the body's response to the sun is to darken it, to protect it from the sun by the pigment. The body realizes that the sun assaults the skin, so it tries to protect it with pigment. That's why people who live in sunnier climates over time are selected with darker skin. Most of the real fair-skinned people in San Diego are not indigenous people. They're just trying to look indigenous by tanning! It's kind of an interesting dichotomy: The light-skinned people spend their whole life trying to look darker, and the dark-skinned people try not to look as dark as they are -- but that's a deep political discussion!"
Tanning salons are also dangerous. In fact, they offer an added risk Dr. Eaton says most people don't think about. "There are lots of mites that live in the skin and just ride along. We are the host for dust mites, though they hardly bother us at all. But there are a lot of skin diseases, like fungus or scabies, that are on the skin and are spread by bodily contact. I would imagine that laying naked or even partially unclothed on a bed of lights constitutes close contact, unless they are adequately cleaned. It's like taking a shower with other people -- you're more likely to get athlete's foot if you're showering in the locker room with 20 other guys. Sand is probably a little more sterile, because the waves clean it every night. But the tanning beds are not sterilized, and you are laying naked where 18 other people have lain naked for an hour, getting tan. It's kind of disgusting."
The three major types of skin cancer from the most to least common are, respectively, basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma, which is the most deadly. Dr. Eaton has treated skin cancer for six years, and he has watched his clientele get gradually younger. "The youngest patient we had last year was a 17-year-old girl, the daughter of a physician, who had a skin cancer on her face. She was a person who tanned. She didn't admit to using salons, but she definitely tanned outdoors. The incidence of melanoma is also increasing. Twenty years ago it was approximately one in 100. Now it's 1 in 75. That's just two decades. I recently read an article that said melanoma was the most common cancer for people aged 25 to 30, which is probably even more true in San Diego. Some people call it an epidemic, and it's certainly a significant increase. We're just seeing the beginning of it, because it takes about 20 years for it to come full-course. Again, like the smoking curve, you see the results much later."
Many young people insist they are only tanning and boast of never getting a sunburn, believing they have eliminated the skin-cancer risk, deceiving themselves in the face of reality. "Burning is like a hangover. It's the ultimate sign of too much sun. But if you keep getting sun, you will have the same cumulative exposure, whether it's a burn or not. And the people who go to sun booths are just regular members of a club where people go to receive a dose of radiation."
Like other cancers, melanoma's survivability depends upon the time of detection. "It can be life-threatening. If it's detected early and is thin, the survival rate is good. Once it gets thick, the survival rate is quite poor."
Dr. Eaton's advice is the same as any physician's and not likely to be taken seriously: "Avoid the peak hours from 10 to 2. Wear protective clothing, a hat and a long-sleeved shirt. If you are going to be in the sun or water, you should wear a waterproof sunblock, 30 or greater, with UVA and UVB sun protection. The vast majority of the sunscreens on the market have that."