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Tanning puts beauty in a bad light

There are few teenage rites that prompt more primping and preening than prom.

It starts with the dress, but for some girls, it doesn't end until they've paid a manicurist, hairstylist and makeup artist to get them ready for the big night.

And then, of course, there is the tan.

Strapless dresses and bare legs so soon after winter's end send plenty of young women to local tanning salons with the hopes of zapping their skin with a faux summer glow.

It's just one fun night -- for some, the pinnacle of high school -- but with all that prom prep comes this subtle lesson that will follow these girls through the rest of their lives: Beauty can be bought.

We're selling teens on the skin-deep notion that beauty means being tan, skinny and impossibly blemish-free, no matter what the impact on their self-esteem and future health.

In some cases, that beauty comes with a price that's far more expensive than the bucks shelled out at the salon.

It's getting harder and harder to ignore scientific studies that link tanning to skin cancer, yet young people -- particularly young women -- continue to expose themselves to the bright lights of indoor tanning salons.

And then there's this surprising statistic that emerged last week: Melanoma cancer cases have increased in New York by 70 percent in a 10-year period. In Erie County, they've nearly doubled.

The numbers come from state Health Department data, reported by the American Cancer Society in its push to pass a new law that would ban those under 18 from indoor tanning salons. Current state law requires teens 14 to 17 to get permission from their parents before visiting an indoor tanning salon.

The proposal has been on the table in New York before and stalled amid pressure from the indoor tanning industry and concerns about overstepping parental decisions, but an odd thing happened this month that has helped propel it back into the light.

The New York tabloids fixed their sights on a 44-year-old New Jersey mom named Patricia Krentcil, and just like that, the American Cancer Society may have found an unwitting ally in its campaign to get people out of the tanning booth.

Krentcil, if you've managed to miss the media whirlwind that propelled her into the national limelight, is accused of child endangerment for allegedly allowing her 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth. She has denied the charge.

But the strange series of events that prompted headlines calling Krentcil the "Toast of the Town" and "Roasted Nut" has done more to stigmatize tanning beds than a decade's worth of scientific studies.

What's cool about finding yourself the butt of late-night jokes?

It's a sad reality of our beauty-obsessed culture. The way to persuade young people to slather on the sunscreen and skip the tanning sessions may be to play to the very same reason they seek out a tan in the first place -- beauty.

Tanning is linked to increased wrinkles, and that may just be the message that convinces teenagers and young adults that a suntan now isn't worth the skin damage later.

Prom may be one of the first tastes of tanning for some teenagers, but two studies highlighted last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show it's a popular habit of young women well into their early 20s.

Here's the thing that's hard to see when you're caught up in the excitement about getting ready for the big dance. Whether or not you're sufficiently bronzed when the limo shows up just isn't that important. A tan will fade. Skin damage will not.

Some beauty tricks just aren't worth the price you pay.