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Cosmetic Surgery and Tanning: What’s the Difference?

Cosmetic Surgery and Tanning: What’s the Difference?

Dermatologists seem to be gravitating toward meeting patients’ demands for cosmetic surgery services. Sure, some talk about how sad it is that medical dermatology is in decline. I prefer to be optimistic and note how much good we’re doing with our cosmetic surgical procedures.

Given patients’ willingness to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for cosmetic services and unwillingness to pay even a co-pay for various medical treatments, it’s obvious how much more valuable cosmetic services are to some patients and how much good we do when we meet those needs.

Similarities Between Tanning and Cosmetic Surgery

If we do recognize that meeting patient desires in the cosmetic realm is valuable, might we also apply this to indoor tanning? Patients perceive that they look better with a tan. They may feel more self-confident. Are those not the same claims offered by proponents of cosmetic surgery for the value they offer patients?

One might differentiate tanning from cosmetic surgery by the fact that there are risks to tanning. There’s a risk of photoaging and of non-melanoma skin cancer and probably some risk of death from melanoma due to tanning.

Yet, there are risks to cosmetic surgery, too. The procedures most dermatologists perform (such as muscle paralysis and chemical peels) are fairly low risk. But, some cosmetic surgery procedures have a risk of significant morbidity, some even death.
Is the risk-to-benefit ratio all that different between tanning and cosmetic procedures? It would be interesting to see a quantitative assessment.

Physicians may or may not perceive benefits that patients perceive. A growing number of dermatologists recognize how patients benefit from cosmetic surgery (for which we are paid) but largely fail to acknowledge benefits patients perceive from tanning. Other physicians may recognize patients’ perceptions of the value of a tan and may even offer chemical tan services in their spas. While safer from a skin cancer perspective, doesn’t this feed into societal biases that favor tanning?

Are Regulations Necessary?

Is there a disconnect between our aggressive efforts to reduce UV exposure behaviors and our growing interest in providing cosmetic surgery services?

We seem to feel that regulating tanning is critical to protecting people from their own choices. Bans on tanning in young children seem reasonable to just about everyone (including most tanning salon operators, I suspect).

Should we consider regulating cosmetic procedures in this population, as well?

Personally, I think we have too much government regulation, and not enough common sense.

Are we that different from tanning bed operators?

Look, I know tanning is bad for skin. I don’t recommend people go to a tanning bed (unless perhaps for some medical indication). And I also don’t push people to have unnecessary cosmetic procedures.

Both tanning operators and cosmetic surgeons are giving people something they desire, something that has risks, and something that is not medically indicated. When we cater to our patients’ requests for cosmetic services, how different are we from tanning bed operators?

Maybe tanning bed operators aren’t as evil as we make them out to be.


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