The underlying “addiction” to tanning — the need to look a certain way — is a complex, personal matter.
Illustrations by Michael Byers

It was a treacherous winter — one that made the sun especially alluring when spring finally showed up. Tanning salons seemed to command our attention like never before. We’d been deprived of the light. In early April I saw a sign on Woodward Avenue beckoning passing drivers to come in for a “free tan.”

Free cancer, I thought.

Malignant melanoma, the most terrifying of skin cancers, which can spread undetected and kill, runs in my family. As beautiful as a tan can be, I have a personal interest in avoiding sun exposure.

But so many other people — including a disproportionate amount of young women — are blind to this cancer risk, despite warnings and scientific evidence showing that prolonged exposure to UVA and UVB rays, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, is a gamble with your health.

Tanning beds are particularly dangerous. They’re even addictive, according to a paper published in 2010 in The New England Journal of Medicine, which detailed research on the behavior of indoor tanning.

Those researchers might have found a former colleague of mine interesting. Still in her early 20s, her need to tan is so strong that she doesn’t care that it’s wrecking her health. “At least I’ll look good at the funeral,” she once joked.

She knows the dangers, but does it anyway, and it’s women like her — ages 16-29 — who bear the brunt of the risk, since they make up 70 percent of tanning bed patrons, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Indoor tanning increases their risk of developing malignant melanoma at some point in their lives by 59 percent, the academy says. Their risk gets higher with each use.

It’s a habit akin to smoking, some researchers have said. They maintain that frequent tanners can exhibit physical and psychological dependence.

The consequences can be horribly disfiguring, cutting to the heart of why most young women go to tanning salons — to look and feel beautiful.

Yes, exposure to UVA and UVB rays can cause premature aging and wrinkles. Then there’s this: A malignant melanoma lesion on the face can be as small as a pencil eraser, but the scar from the procedure to remove it can end up being a conspicuous 2 inches long.

At her dermatology practice in Farmington Hills, Dr. Wendy Sadoff is seeing more young women than ever who are willing to sabotage their efforts to live healthy lives by the constant need to be tan.

“The desire to look a certain way will somehow supersede their intellectual capacity to know that what they’re doing is wrong,” Sadoff says of her young patients who persist in their habit. “We’ve known for a long time that indoor tanning is directly delivering cancer-causing rays.”

This is something that Lisa Joachimi, 44, desperately wants to avoid for her two teenage daughters. It’s too late for her.

An advertising salesperson for Detroit’s WWJ Newsradio 950, Joachimi attended MSU in the 1980s. She and her friends had monthly passes for indoor tanning. She worshipped the sun. She used baby oil.

“The whole nine yards,” Joachimi says of her quest to be tan. “If I got [burned], I thought, ‘Good. At least I have some color.’ ”

Now, she’s “chock-full of scars,” a survivor of malignant melanoma and forever consigned to checking her entire body every three months to make sure the dangerous lesions haven’t returned. She’s begun to use chemotherapy cream for spots forming on her face to avoid further scarring.

Still, Joachimi is lucky. When she was in her 30s, she watched her sister-in-law die of malignant melanoma at the age of 52.

It jolted Joachimi into the reality of what she had been doing to her skin her entire life. “It was so scary to me,” she says of the revelation. “It was like I had been cooking my skin.”

Joachimi stopped going to tanning salons, but the damage was done. Malignant melanoma can show up years later, the result of cumulative exposure. When she saw a black spot on her thigh about four years ago, Joachimi went to the doctor and got treatment. If it had gone unchecked, a malignant melanoma such as hers could have traveled to her lymph nodes, metastasizing to the point of no return.

“It’s no joke,” Joachimi says.

The underlying “addiction” to tanning — the need to look a certain way — is a complex, personal matter, says Sadoff, who is committed to helping her patients understand the ramifications of voluntarily exposing themselves to a known carcinogen.

Her advice, however, starts out the same: Understand how important it is to properly protect your skin. And never use tanning beds.