On a trip from Paris to Cannes, the influential French fashion designer Coco Chanel first popularized tanning in 1923 when she stepped off of the Duke of Wellington's yacht with a deep-brown complexion. Assumed it was the next runway trend, European and American women sought to mimic Coco's look by stripping down and taking in the sunlight. Eight decades later, our generation continues to follow this trend of maintaining a year-round sun-kissed complexion. But in the process of beautifying ourselves in the sun — indoors or outdoors — we are burning away layers of skin and advancing on a path toward skin cancer.

According to the National Tanning Training Institute, 29 million Americans are registered members of tanning salons, supporting a rapidly growing $5 billion industry.

In the downtown area, dozens of tanning salons feed the fake-baking addiction. Across campus, "tanorexics" — those in fear of fading skin color — are ubiquitous figures, strutting around with tropical tans even in the middle of winter.

Head to the second floor of College Library and countless students have identically pigmented skin. No, these girls weren't born in the same Hawaiian village, they are just slaves to tanning beds and have accumulated the same orangey pigment. Shut down Platinum and Madison Tanning Company and perhaps you'll see their true colors.

A sun-kissed tone was once a symbol of high status, a visual souvenir from an exotic Caribbean island or a long weekend at the country club pool. But today, tanning salons offer such inexpensive student packages that synthetic sunlight has become integrated into our daily routines, a natural part of American culture. Millions of tanning-bed customers have signed safety waivers that warn about the increased risk of cancer associated with indoor tanning, yet few college-age students discuss or fathom the harmful, long-term effects.

My introduction to artificial sunlight began a month before junior prom, when my friends and I purchased our first tanning packages: unlimited use of any bed for $45 per month. After a month of daily baking, and a little assistance from professional makeup artists and hair stylists, we looked tan and fabulous in our memorable prom photos. Nobody thought twice about the whole artificial process, except my hippy parents.

On prom day, my mom screamed at me, "You're killing yourself by sitting in that cancer box." Without thinking about the validity of her warning — that my family had a long history of skin cancer and that my complexion is prone to skin caner — I replied with a "whatever" and continued to tan occasionally.

In a frigid climate, the concept of entering a tanning bed and deepening one's complexion in a mere fifteen minutes seems to make sense. Tanning is cheap and the immediate result is sexy; for a few bucks you can emerge from pale-faced to sun-kissed. But what happens after years of browning in a box?

This year, researchers in Sweden have directly linked commercial tanning and skin cancer: people under age 30 who use tanning beds or lamps more than 10 times per year are seven times more likely to develop melanoma, a life-threatening form of cancer. Because the lights used in tanning beds and sun lamps give off mainly ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation — classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Cancer Research — tanning beds are more harmful than outdoor sunbathing. A mere 20 minutes in a tanning booth is equivalent to an entire day at the beach without sunscreen, according to a recent Consumer Reports investigation.

Ironically, as we become more educated about this disease, business at tanning salons is surging. According to the American Cancer Society, one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer annually, while sales at the country's largest chain, Hollywood Tans, has increased 450 percent since 2000. If salons were permanently closed, we would spare a significant number of lives.

This summer, my father became a victim of skin cancer and had three layers of skin removed from his nose. After witnessing eight weeks of bruising and bandages, I'm currently on my first fake-baking hiatus. This winter, I'll crave the warming feeling of lying naked in a tanning bed, but I'd like to think I'm saving myself from a deadly disease which is plaguing Americans.

Rachel Alkon ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in English/creative writing.