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17 JULY 2016


Everyone has a special talent. A friend of mine can tie knots in cherry stalks with her tongue, for example. Another friend had an uncanny talent for blagging flight upgrades. Mine? It’s sun-tanning.


Everyone has a special talent. A friend of mine can tie knots in cherry stalks with her tongue, for example. Another friend had an uncanny talent for blagging flight upgrades. Mine? It’s sun-tanning.


Indeed, someone ought to give me an honorary doctorate for it, such is my skill at getting a tan.


And I’m not talking about that healthy 21st-century ‘glow’ that glossy magazines promote. I mean a proper, dark, politically incorrect Seventies tan - the kind my millennial stepsons and teenage kids, who head for the cool indoors the moment the sun pokes its head out, simply do not understand.


And the older I get the more effortless it becomes, perhaps fooling me into a false sense of security.

That’s not to say I don’t have standards on the tanning front, though they are low. I go to a dermatologist for an annual mole check, usually at the beginning of September when I couldn’t go any darker if I tried (best to start with a worst-case scenario and work upwards).


Do I put SPF on my face? Yes I do, but not every time I get out of the water. And as for my body, after the first two days I don’t bother. And yes, I know I should kick the habit. But try as I might, I just keep going back for more.


It is not something to boast about. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK and rates are rising. My generation are the worst culprits.


This month, a Cancer Research UK study revealed that in 2014 more than 10,000 people over 55 were told they had malignant melanoma, the scariest, most aggressive form of skin cancer. And rates of melanoma in the over-55s have more than doubled, rising by 155 per cent in the past 20 years (compared with 63 per cent among younger people).


The reason? We’re the sun, sea and sangria generation. A hedonistic group who got hooked on sun during the cheap package holiday boom and still yearn to have tanned skin, even at the expense of sunburn. Um, yes.


Clearly, my generation need to be read the Riot Act. Several times over.


And so it is that I pitch up sheepishly at the Harley Street offices of Dr Helene du Menage, one of the top dermatologists in the country and an evangelist when it comes to the topic of sun damage.


I’m hoping she’ll scare me into a self-imposed tanning detox.


‘There is no such thing as safe tanning. Yes, you may be of Asian extraction and yes, we know the risk of melanoma is related to our skin colour, and having darker skin is like having an inbuilt suncream, but that doesn’t mean you are not going to get it. And I notice you have light eyes.’


Apparently, light eyes mean I have less melanin than those whose eyes are brown, making me far more sensitive to the sun.


I ask her about my history of breast cancer. In September 2007, I had breast cancer diagnosed after finding a lump the size of a grape pip in my right breast. It was grade one, treated with radiotherapy and a mere verruca compared with the experiences of so many of my poor friends who have had the disease.


But it was cancer nonetheless. Am I especially stupid to imagine the two are not connected? Because obviously cancer likes my body as a home.


‘The two are connected only very rarely,’ says du Menage. ‘Probably because skin cancer cells have different triggers from breast cancer cells in most cases.


‘However, if your breast cancer is genetic there is a small increase in the chance of melanoma, too. And there is a suggestion of a very slight increase in breast cancer with people who already have or have had skin cancer, especially if they are young and smoke.’ (I tick neither box.)


So am I too old to worry about it now? Hasn’t the damage been done?


Du Menage is adamant. Just as with smoking, I’d be doing myself an enormous favour, even at this late stage, if I quit sunbathing. Completely.


‘People have to understand what a tan actually is. It’s the body’s protective response to UVA and UVB light-induced damage. UVB (the rays that cause sunburn) is a mutagen. That is, it can actually mutate your DNA.


‘Any time you go out in the sun it gets tattooed on to your DNA, and though the body is wonderful at cutting out those mutated strands, sometimes it misses bits.


‘When you get a mutation that sits there and then another one on top of it, that’s when cancer can occur. And let me tell you that DNA damage happens even before you go pink.


‘I’m olive-skinned, too, but you will never catch me sunbathing. Ever. Because I’m scared. It truly frightens me. When I see people sunbathing I want to go and cover them up.’


Sobering stuff. If there is anyone who is going to change my ways it is this supremely measured expert.


And yet, and yet... I know I shouldn’t say this, but a good tan really does take off 10lb. Don’t ask me why, it just does. But it’s not just that. A tan, like smiling, improves pretty much everyone’s appearance.


All I’m saying is I love being in the sun; I simply don’t understand a summer holiday that isn’t by the beach and I absolutely adore the look of a white bottom against a deeply tanned lower back, like Jodie Foster in that old Coppertone ad, ditto shoulders the colour of conkers.


From a vanity point of view, there’s no point in doing the hat/headscarf/sunglasses in the pool à la Joan Collins - though the woman has fewer wrinkles at 83 than I did at 30.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from advocating that you get out there and burn yourself to a cinder (as I have, gulp, in the past).


I’m simply trying to explain why I find it so difficult to quit. The sun is too much of a seducer. I see it so seldom. It’s just so difficult to say no.


Am I ‘tanorexic’? Do I think I’m never tanned enough? Possibly. Is it something to do with growing up in the Seventies? Probably.


Ah, the Seventies. If you are as old as me - ie, fiftysomething - you’ll remember that heady Bergasol-scented July of 1976.


If tanorexia ever came into being, it was during that decade. That was when we used silver foil under our chins to reflect as much sun as possible on to our face; when we purposely burned ourselves so that first layer of skin would peel off and we could get down to the real deep, dark tan; when it was fashionable to have our faces as dark as our bodies.


Oh my goodness. If I’d let my children fry the way I fried myself back then, I’d have been reported to social services.


In fact, I nearly was when I took them to the Seychelles for a break three years ago and, underestimating the force of the sun on a boat trip, allowed the younger one to burn. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have admitted that in print. If it makes it any better, they’ve been alabaster ever since.)


Letting your children get even vaguely pink is almost as bad as leaving them in the car while you’re having a drink in the pub.


Tanning has become as taboo as smoking. No graphic pictures of squamous and basal cancerous moles or variegated, uneven-edged melanomas on bottles of sun tan lotion yet, no actual government directives, but it’s surely only a matter of time.


Meanwhile, have you ever tried to buy a tinted moisturiser without SPF? I’m sure it still exists, but I’ll be damned if I can find one.


The message certainly seems to have sunk in for the younger generation. Yet a not so tiny part of me can’t help wondering sometimes, especially when I see my teenage sons dressing like polar explorers to go out in the sun (and God forbid they come home with an actual tan), if we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


Aren’t we losing sight of the enormously beneficial effects of the sun?


And if, at the mere hint of a ray, we keep coating ourselves and our children in a thick layer of zinc from head to toe, doing everything in our power to keep them from tanning, aren’t we inadvertently compromising their health?


At the last count, ten million people in the UK were thought to have low levels of vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’. And we are all aware that vitamin D deficiency in the elderly, especially women, may contribute to osteoporosis - a thinning of the bones.


Shouldn’t we be enforcing at least some sun exposure on the brittle-boned?


‘Vitamin D is important for health,’ says another Harley Street cosmetic dermatologist, Dr Sam Bunting, but she believes dietary supplements are the way to get it.


‘It’s difficult to recommend sun exposure as a good source of vitamin D when you can get it from a supplement.’


There’s another thing to think of here, and that’s the environment.


‘The cosmetic industry has yet to come up with an SPF ingredient that protects us from the sun’s damaging rays and is kind to the sea’s ecosystem,’ says top skin specialist Alexandra Soveral, who suggests we cover up in UV- resistant swimwear rather than polluting the sea with sun lotion.


And it’s not as if I can’t fake a tan. If I want to be that brown, there are many ways to become so safely - the art of spray-tanning has become so sophisticated these days, you really can’t tell whether it’s from the Caribbean or Boots.


So is that it? Can I finally wean myself off my tanning addiction?


The test will be this week. It was cloudy over the weekend in this microclimate we have here in Wiltshire, so I only got 15 minutes before breakfast on one of my new sun loungers.


But I’m looking forward to the forthcoming heatwave when, apparently, it’s going to be hotter than it’s been all summer. This time, though, I think it had better be factor 50 all the way.

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