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Linda Cousineau always worked hard to save enough money for a yearly trip south, where should would escape the winter blahs by basking in the sun: Florida, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico were her favoured destinations.

Before leaving, she made a point of visiting a tanning salon, to get a "base tan."

"I always believed a base tan protected you, that you could spend more time in the sun if you didn't head to the beach all white," Ms. Cousineau said.

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As March break approaches and tens of thousands of Canadians make the pilgrimage to sandy white beaches, many will also make a series of visits to local tanning salons to get a head start on bronzed skin.

"It's the busiest time of the year for us," said Steve Gilroy, executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association. "People know a base tan is the best way to avoid a sunburn."

But Gillian Bromfield, senior manager of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society, said pretanning ups your risk of skin cancer and should be avoided.

"Base tanning provides the SPF equivalent of 2 to 3, it's negligible," she said.

(Sun protection factor is a measure of the degree to which a sunscreen protects the skin from the sun's direct rays. Using an SPF 30 sunscreen, a person gets the equivalent of one minute of UV rays for each 30 minutes they spend in the sun.)

Even so, the tanning industry has long maintained that sunburn poses the greatest danger for skin cancer and can be prevented with pretanning. "We recommend 10 sessions over 20 days so you get low exposure and slowly build up your base tan," said Mr. Gilroy.

Ms. Cousineau, a 43-year-old hairstylist from Laval, Que., used to follow that regime religiously.

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"I used to buy a membership so I could go often and always have a nice tan," she said.

But she has dramatically changed her views over time.

A decade ago, Ms. Cousineau noticed a growth on her leg and had it removed. It was non-cancerous but gave her a scare. Then, in 2007, she discovered another growth that was more worrisome.

"That one didn't look like a beauty spot, it was rough and sandy," she said. It was a Stage 3 melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, and the cancer had spread down to the bone.

Ms. Cousineau underwent surgery, leaving a "large crater" in her leg that required painful skin grafts. She also started treatment with interferon, a drug with debilitating side effects. She lost all her hair and suffered fatigue and muscle pain that left her unable to work for more than a year.

(Skin cancer does not respond well to more traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation so oncologists try to cut out the tumour.)

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Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common form of cancer among Canadians, with an estimated 75,500 cases and 280 deaths last year.

In 2010, an estimated 5,300 Canadians were diagnosed with much more serious melanoma skin cancer and about 920 died from the disease.

The form of melanoma Ms. Cousineau had has only a 20 per cent survival rate.

"Melanoma is not benign, it's a serious cancer," said Ms. Bromfield of the Canadian Cancer Society.

The advocacy group is trying to change well-ingrained views that tanning is healthy and desirable.

"If you're getting a tan, you're going too far," she said. Exposure to UV rays causes skin damage and damage to DNA that can lead to cancer.

Ms. Bromfield said that the CCS has a lot of work to do on "sun awareness" and one of its principal points of focus is the need to regulate the indoor tanning industry.

The city of Victoria, as well as the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have restricted access to tanning salons to those over the age 18.

The industry is fighting back, accusing the CCS and its allies of misrepresenting research on skin cancer and of unfairly vilifying tanning salons.

Mr. Gilroy said skin type - not tanning beds - is the main risk factor for skin cancer and the industry promotes healthy sun habits.

Although medical experts would agree that skin type does matter, the cancer society says excess UV exposure is a cancer risk for everyone.

Instead of an under-18 ban, the JCTA has proposed a parental consent rule. It has also warned that if young people are banned from commercial businesses, they will turn to home tanning, which is far more dangerous.

Ms. Cousineau said that she has learned the hard way the dangers of tanning - both indoors and outdoors.

"Of course I still go out in the sun. I even go south," she said. "But my behaviour is different: I wear sunscreen and I spend a lot of time under the parasol," she said.

"I've also learned that good health is not just about the colour of your skin. There are other ways to look - and be - healthy than being tanned."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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