Dermatology • Mar 04, 2013

The Truth about Tanning

If you’ve ever used a tanning bed – even once – you have a 75% increased risk of melanoma.  And if you’ve been a tanning salon regular, you have up to a 400% increased risk of melanoma, according to Brundha Balaraman, MD, a dermatologist at Washington University in St. Louis.  Dr. Balaraman sees the tragic consequences of tanning in her clinic—young adults in their twenties with more than 20 basal cell carcinomas and even melanoma.  Crying, they tell her they never knew this could happen from tanning.  These are young adults, moms with young children, people with their lives ahead of them.  And skin cancer kills them.

So why do teens, usually 16-18 year olds, still flock to tanning salons?  Perhaps because 80% of tanningtanning salons in Missouri give out medically inaccurate information about the risks of tanning, according to Dr. Balaraman’s new study, published in the journal Pediatrics this month.  And 65% of Missouri tanning salons permit children as young as 10 and 12 to tan without parental permission.

Let’s get this straight: in Missouri minors need parental permission to get a tattoo, to pierce their ears, or even to go on a school field trip.  But minors don’t need parental permission to participate in an activity that dramatically increases their risk of skin cancer.

Something just doesn’t seem right about this – which is why Dr. Balaraman did a study to highlight how the tanning industry puts our children at risk.

Dr. Balaraman and her research team conducted a statewide telephone survey of randomly selected tanning facilities in Missouri. Each tanning facility was surveyed twice, in the morning (7 am–3 pm) and evening (3–10 pm), on different days.   Here’s what they found:

  • On average, 65% of 243 tanning-facility operators would allow children as young as 10 or 12 years old to use indoor-tanning devices
  • 80% claimed (inaccurately) that indoor tanning would prevent future sunburns
  • 43% claimed (inaccurately) that there were no risks associated with indoor tanning

So… it’s time for some myth-busting about indoor tanning.  A few key facts every teen and parent should know:

  • Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure in indoor-tanning devices is associated with skin cancer, eye damage, and premature skin aging.
  • Some tanning devices use only UVA rays, as opposed to UVB rays.  UVA rays do not cause a sensation of sunburn, and hence lead tanning clients to feel that UVAs are a “safer” tan.  But UVA rays are still associated with skin cancer.  And because there is no sensation of sunburn, people are willing to stay in a UVA tanning bed longer, further increasing their risk of cancer.
  • Indoor tanning with UVA rays does not prevent sunburn from outdoor tanning.
  • There is no such thing as a safe tan. As above, even one time use of a tanning bed increases your risk of melanoma by 75%, and repeated use can increase your risk by up to 400%.

For six years Dr. Balaraman and others have struggled to get Missouri state regulations that limit indoor tanning for minors, but they have not found success.  Apparently the lobbyists from the tanning industry are very powerful.  There are also rumors that some state representatives had financial interest in the tanning industry.

Other states have been successful with tanning regulation.  California and Vermont have recently implemented under-18 tanning prohibitions, with legislation pending in Maine. New York has restrictions on indoor tanning for those under 17. Thirty-three states currently have some type of regulation on the books, ranging from parental consent requirements to the provision of eye protection. But in Missouri, indoor tanning is not state regulated.

There are currently two Missouri state bills pending that attempt to regulate indoor tanning, but Dr. Balaraman feels what we really need is federal regulation.  “We really need a federal law that establishes a minimum age for tanning, similar to smoking and drinking age limits.”

Then, maybe, she’ll see fewer twenty-year-olds with skin cancer.


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