Light, dark or something in between?What’s your look going to be this summer: tanned and sultry seductress or alabaster aristocrat?
Every summer, image-conscious Koreans try to balance their personal preferences with social norms and health concerns, some opting for tans and others for sunblock and hats.
Fair, unblemished skin was the preference for generations. Light skin was synonymous with wealth, since peasants toiled in the sun while aristocrats lounged in the shade. But in recent years, young, active, wealthy people have been sporting tans, viewing white skin as the symbol of office drones.
There’s another aspect, too. “Tanning makes you look slimmer,” notes Park Shin-ja, director of the beauty clinic Aromafeel in southern Seoul. “It’s easier to get a tan than it is to lose weight, so many people choose to get a tan during the summer.” Darker skin also conceals scars and blemishes. And it gives a bronzed, healthy look that some enjoy keeping year-round.
Some young women who don’t have the time to sunbathe are opting for suntan parlors, such as the SesQ Suntan Center, one of several tanning salons near Ewha Womans University in northwestern Seoul.
The interior of SesQ reveals tanning beds that look like space capsules with long fluorescent lights running down each side. Most are in separate rooms for privacy, but there are some sections with multiple beds for couples who come to tan together. Here customers strip, meticulously apply suntan oil and tan in 10 to 15 minute blocks to prevent burning. Twenty sessions cost 150,000 won ($125).
“I’ve been tanning for the past 13 years,” says one customer. “Before that, I was so pale that people always asked if I was sick. Now they compliment me on how healthy and sexy I look.”
Getting enough sun is important. In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, “A Second Opinion on Sunshine,” Dr. Michael Holick of the Boston University School of Medicine said that relatively brief exposure to sunshine or its equivalent several times a week . without sunblock . can help ward off diseases. In addition, sunscreen limits the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D, which Dr. Holick says is required in amounts that most people can’t get through foods or supplements.
But most dermatologists say that exposure to the sun accelerates the skin’s aging process and increases the possibility of developing skin cancer.
“We advise against tanning, whether done outside or artificially,” says Dr. Lee Ho-gyun of the Dream Dermatology and Laser Center in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. The darkening process is due to an increase in melanin pigment, which develops in order to protect the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. “What’s commonly thought of as a symbol of health actually is a sign of unhealthy skin,” he says.
Dr. Lee advises people to avoid overexposure to the sun. “Sunscreen is a good idea because UV rays are bad for your skin. People will still receive a sufficient amount of vitamin D even if they shield themselves.”
He also advises checking for sunscreen that blocks both UV-A and UVB rays, which are both types of potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation. Products that are “broad spectrum” or are called “A+B” fall in this category.
However, managers of tanning salons, predictably, are of a different opinion. Most say artificial tanning can be controlled, so it’s gentler than tanning outdoors and doesn’t harm your skin. “As long as customers don’t go through more than 25 to 30 tanning sessions, their exposure to the UV rays won’t do damage to the skin,” says Ms. Park. She adds that tanning beds filter out harmful UV-B rays. “Our tanning methods are perfectly safe, while actually providing a dose of vitamin D that enhances customers’ health.”
On other end of the spectrum are products to lighten the skin or keep it from burning. Among them are chemical sunblocks, whitening agents and even procedures done by dermatologists.
“White skin goes well with any type or color of makeup and outfit,” says Ahn Ju-hee, an office worker who has a flawless, ivory complexion. “In a way, it makes a person look classy and affluent.”
Those interested in lightening their complexion should see a dermatologist. Popular whitening procedures include microdermabrasion, commonly known as crystal peeling, in which the doctor uses a small instrument equipped with tiny crystal particles to remove dead skin cellsand create a fresher, whiter look. Another method is vitamin C therapy, which uses electrical currents to deliver the whiteness-enhancing nutrient deep into the skin.
Skin whitening procedures are safe if properly administered by licensed medical professionals, says Dr. Sihn Ja-kyoung of the LeeJiHahm Dermatology Clinic in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul. “Chemical peeling may cause a slight amount of irritation to sensitive skin,” Dr. Sihn says, “but it has no effect on a patient’s health.”
For those who are wary of either extreme, a good idea is to stick with your current skin tone and apply enough sunscreen lotion to protect yourself. “With sunscreen, we advise using products with SPF [Sun Protection Factor] levels above 15,” says Dr. Lee. “Application every two to three hours, or one hour if you’ve been immersed in water or done a great deal of sweating, is best for your health.”
by Chong Chi-hyon