It has been said that tanning beds are shaped like coffins for a reason. The ultraviolet (UV) light emitted by tanning beds is a known carcinogenic—the World Health Organization (WHO) recently named both UVA and UVB rays as such, along with cancer-causing agents like cigarettes and asbestos. But, despite the wealth of health information about the dangers of tanning beds, many Americans continue to invest money and time, and risk their future health, with regular visits to the tanning salon.
We live in a nation where informed, consenting adults have long been free to make choices that could end up being detrimental to their health. But, that freedom of choice assumes that there is quality information presented about the benefits and risks of different behaviors. The health claims circulated by purveyors of tanning beds make it difficult for even adults to wade through the deluge of misinformation surrounding the dangers of indoor tanning. This misinformation is a problem right off the bat for the concept of “informed” adults. But when we talk about what is happening with children and indoor tanning, there should be even more concern.
A newly-released study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that nearly 30% of white, non-Hispanic high-school aged girls have used tanning beds over the past year. The AAD estimates that 2.3 million teens use tanning beds each year in the U.S. Visiting the tanning salon before big events like prom has become a teenage rite-of-passage, akin to getting a driver’s license. There are mothers who go tanning with their teenage daughters as a way of family bonding. Of all the things parents need to worry about when it comes to the health and safety of their kids, too often the dangers of indoor tanning don’t rise to the top of the list.
So what are the facts? Prolonged exposure to UV light, whether from the sun outdoors or tanning beds indoors, increases a person’s chances of developing all types of skin cancer, including deadly melanoma. But the concentration and frequency of UV light exposure that indoor tanners face raises their odds of developing these skin cancers, especially if they start indoor tanning at a young age. One of the most startling facts is that a teenage girl who goes indoor tanning increases her lifetime risk of developing melanoma by 75%. Did you feel the earth just shutter a little bit? That was the collective result of millions of teenage girls shrugging. After all, they have a lifetime to worry about things like “lifetime risk.” Only they don’t.
Melanoma is increasing at an alarming rate in the U.S. An estimated 77,000 Americans will be diagnosed with the cancer next year and it will take the lives of 9,500. This disease is also affecting young people with a vengeance: It is now the second most common form of cancer among young people 15-29 years old. Young people focusing on being tan today are raising their risk of dying from melanoma in the not-so-distant future.
Researchers have even noted that indoor tanning seems to have an addictive quality, with frequent indoor tanners reporting improvements in mood and happiness due to tanning sessions. Teenagers’ brains are still changing as they move to adulthood, and an unfortunate side-effect of this ongoing development is that teens are at high risk for developing addictions. One study found that 21% of teens aged 14-17 experienced difficulty when they tried to stop indoor tanning.
We should be doing more to prevent children from exposure to the needless dangers and risks of indoor tanning, including skin damage from preventable UV radiation. It has taken a generation to learn the lessons from cigarettes; will we move more quickly now with the indoor tanning devices?
The FDA is currently in the process of reclassifying these devices to place additional restrictions on indoor tanning. While this is an important first step, the FDA should consider instituting further regulations to completely restrict minors from the use of tanning beds. A nationwide ban on indoor tanning for minors would be the most effective way to achieve this aim. At least eleven countries and six U.S. states have already passed similar legislation to keep minors safe from the dangers of indoor tanning.
Ideally, we would live in a society where “beautiful skin” was defined as healthy skin, changing our social norms so adults and teens alike would have no desire to fry their skin in pursuit of some sort of ideal. The phrases “healthy glow,” “base tan,” and “sun kissed” wouldn’t even make it into the lexicon. Until that day comes, we must take the steps we can to safeguard our children against this known cause of cancer and delay their access to indoor tanning devices until they are responsible and mature enough to understand the lifetime risks associated with entering a tanning bed.
If you have strong feelings about the issue of UV exposure and skin cancer and melanoma, we urge you to take action and comment on the note issued by the Surgeon General’s office looking for information on how to reduce UV exposure and skin cancers in the U.S. Comments are due by September 4th and are encouraged from individuals, organizations, and industry.