This story was originally published May 13, 2016.
Warning: The selfies posted here are stomach-churning and horrific — but that’s the point. The women shown are reminders that making the wrong choices about tanning can be not only disfiguring, but fatal. As CNN reports, Tawny Willoughby, a 27-year-old registered nurse who lives in Alabama, shared a gnarly selfie, rife with flesh wounds, on her Facebook page. In her caption, Willoughby said that, as a teen, she used a tanning bed up to five times a week. “Now, at 27, I've had basal cell carcinoma five times and squamous cell carcinoma once (excluding my face). I go to the dermatologist every six to 12 months, and usually have a skin cancer removed at each checkup,” she wrote.
Judy Cloud, 49, also tanned religiously in her youth. She told Today that she used tanning beds to establish a “base tan” in her 20s and laid out in the sun for hours covered in baby oil as a teen. The Indianapolis resident found her first spot in 1995.
Cloud is documenting her entire skin-cancer battle on Facebook, posting selfies of surgery scars and wounds on her face, arm, chest, shoulder, and legs. The images are disturbing, but her captions cut even deeper. “The wounds on my face are healing,” she writes. “But what you can’t tell from the pictures is that the scar on my mouth is from a cut that had to go into the muscle above my mouth because the cancer was into the muscle... Four weeks post-surgery, I still can’t open my mouth all the way.”
While we’d like to think that we’ve come a long way from the days of frolicking around sans sunscreen and taking to tanning beds, the reality paints a different picture. In 2013, 20% of female and 5% of male high school students reported using an indoor tanning device in the previous year, according to the American Cancer Society. This, despite research that shows, “The risk of melanoma is about 60% higher for people who began using indoor tanning devices before the age of 35, and melanoma risk increases with the number of total hours, sessions, or years that indoor tanning devices are used,” according to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention & Early Detection Facts & Figures 2015–2016.
Why are young women not getting the message about dangerous tanning practices? Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, cites good old-fashioned rebellion as a possible reason. “Our early 20s is a time of rebellion and self-discovery, and young women may not be wearing sunscreen the way their parents may have advocated they do,” he says.
Either way, he says skin-cancer education is imperative. Yes, even in 2016. And if solid research and common sense aren’t enough to keep us out of the sun and away from tanning beds, then gruesome selfies might.