Cold, cloudy days sent Michelle Gordon indoors to work on her tan.
Weekly dates with tanning beds — more often in winter — kept Gordon bronzed for about 15 years.
Then in September, the 43-year-old Medford resident noticed one of her moles "looked a little funny." The itchy, bleeding spot harbored the most common type of skin cancer: basal-cell carcinoma. Its removal left an inch-long scar on Gordon's chest, where a bathing suit typically shielded her skin from the sun.
There was little doubt of the cancer's cause, her doctor said: ultraviolet rays from tanning beds.
Six months later, Gordon had identified more potentially cancerous moles and likened revisiting a tanning bed to entertaining a "death wish." But she loathed being so "pasty-white," particularly with a trip to Hawaii on the horizon. A friend suggested a local spray-tanning service that produces natural, even color in a 10- to 15-minute appointment without the harsh, chemical smell of self-tanning lotions.
"I've recommended it to a lot of people," says Gordon. "It was so fast."
Tracy Unrein developed the business to satisfy a craving for tawny skin since her sister's brush with cancer cast shadows on the family's longtime use of tanning beds.
"It's like you're addicted to tanning," says Unrein, 32. "You want that color."
Color is the main difference between her All Season Spray Tanning and lotions commonly available at drugstores, says Unrein.
"That's a lot of people's biggest fear is: 'Will I come out orange, and will it stink?' "
Unrein adds a pineapple aroma to her vegan solution manufactured by Sjolie Tanning Products of Sacramento, Calif. Derived from sugar cane and sugar beets, the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone stains the skin's topmost layer a brownish color, which fades after 10 days. The formula, which contains no artificial preservatives, parabens, alcohols or oils, is mixed with an aloe base to moisturize skin.
The product gained approval from Daniel Laury, a gynecologist and women's primary-care physician whose Medford office offers aesthetician services, including Unrein's sunless tanning. Although the number of women who tan has decreased over the 19 years he's practiced locally, Laury says he diagnoses skin cancers weekly and has stern warnings for patients whose tanning persists.
"It's pretty obvious when someone has had years of UV exposure," he says.
The most common form of cancer, skin cancers account for more than 2 million cases annually in the United States. The deadliest kind, melanoma, is the second-most common cancer of women in their 20s and has been on the rise for at least 30 years, with a 3-percent annual increase in women ages 15 to 39 since 1992, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A recent World Health Organization report put tanning beds in its highest category for carcinogens.
Young girls who tan heighten their risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent, according to Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. Yet a national survey showed that 24 percent of white teenagers 13 to 19 years old used a tanning facility at least once. The pediatrics academy is advocating laws banning anyone younger than 18 from tanning beds. Legislation to do just that was pending in California.
Unrein is all too familiar with teens' desire to sport a tan, particularly for prom season. So she's been showing off her handiwork on Miss Rogue Valley and Pear Blossom queen contestants. All Season charges $30 per session. Call 541-531-7214.
Sunless tanning clients can wear bathing suits or disposable undergarments inside a pop-up tent, where the tanning solution is sprayed on. Unlike "Mystic Tan" booths, technicians who administer the tan by hand produce more accurate results and can contour certain areas of the body, says Kate Wasserman, owner of the Oregon Institute of Aesthetics, which added sunless tanning to its repertoire this spring.
"It's becoming more and more popular as people become more educated," says Wasserman, adding that even tanning salons are starting to offer sunless alternatives.
A sunless tan, unlike the real thing, affords no protection from UV rays. So spray-tan fans — like everyone else — should diligently apply broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher), limit sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and take extra caution near water, sand and snow, which reflect UV rays.