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What caused the N.J. tanning mom's leathery look?

Patricia Krentcil, who is accused of allegedly bringing her 5-year-old into a tanning booth, pleaded not guilty, saying her daughter suffered a sunburn. NBC's Mara Schiavocampo reports on the court appearance, and attorney Star Jones and Dr. Jennifer Ashton comment on the charges and the dangers of tanning.

Yikes!

That’s was the reaction of many of our readers after seeing burnt-to-a-crisp New Jersey mom Patricia Krentcil, who made news after authorities arrested her for taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning salon to tan, a claim she denies.

Krentcil does admit that she enjoys tanning -- perhaps a bit too much -- but all those hours in UV light have likely damaged the collagen in Krentcil's skin, causing her leathery, brown visage. 

“That’s a result of chronic exposure, which causes darkening of the skin,” says Dr. Shannon Campbell, clinical assistant professor of general dermatology and cutaneous oncology at The Ohio State University James Cancer Center. 

While many people just desire a bronze color, a tan is actually the body’s way of protecting itself. “Why is she so dark?  Tanning is a protective mechanism that the body has and it is sign of skin damage if the body tans. That explains why her skin is so dark,” says Campbell.

TODAY

New Jersey mom Patricia Krentcil is denying charges of child endangerment after taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning salon. But what many msnbc.com readers couldn't help but focus on was her leathery visage.

Collagen, which is in the dermis, the second layer of the skin, gives the skin its elasticity. Collagen keeps skin strong and elastic, but as it lessens due to age or UV damage, the skin sustains cracks or wrinkles. It’s what makes skin pliable and the less one has, the more wrinkles occur. That's what's causing Krentcil to look prematurely aged and leathery (she's 44, but could easily pass as a Golden Girl). 

And tanning — especially indoor tanning — causes more than just hideous looks. Campbell says that people who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinomas (BCC). Someone with such a tanning history would also suffer from a weakened immune system (people often develop cold sores after tanning) and an increased chance of getting cataracts and ocular melanoma, a rare and often overlooked eye cancer caused by overexposure to UV light.

Krentcil's excessive tanning has focused attention on "tanorexia," a habit that research indicates can be as addictive as alcohol or smoking. A small study from 2006 found that when people who compulsively sunbathe -- whether in a tanning booth or outdoors -- stop, they can feel withdrawal symptoms from their UV high. And an earlier msnbc.com story reported that many teen girls hit the tanning salon for the first time with mom. Researchers from East Tennessee state University found that nearly 40 percent of young women, ages 18 to 30, who participated in a small study said their first experience with indoor tanning was with their mother.

Whether someone is hooked on rays -- artificial or real -- the World Health Organization classifies ultraviolet radiation as a known carcinogen, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, author of "Your Body Beautiful," told TODAY Thursday. "They put it on the same level as cigarettes, on the same level as plutonium. So it's dangerous."  

But there is hope for Krentcil. If she stops tanning her skin might lighten and different treatments could repair her collagen, leading to a more youthful appearance. Yet, Krentcil will probably always be at higher risk for cancer:

“To a degree the damage has already been done,” Campbell says. 

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