Tanning Beds and Teens – A Toxic Combination?

With near-record temperatures this week throughout much of the US, it feels like spring has already arrived. And it is true that Spring Break is just around the corner.

Tanning salons also feel spring has arrived, judging by all the ads and billboards around town. These ads often target young women – even teens – giving lists of reasons to tan that include spring break, homecoming and Prom! After all, what young girl doesn’t want a nice glow on vacation – or to offset that special dress?

Unfortunately, that glow often comes at a price much higher than the cost of a tanning membership. When we think about skin cancer we usually picture a 60 year-old white man. However, over the past 30 years, skin cancer rates have increased significantly among young women – melanoma increased by 50%, basal cell carcinoma rates more than doubled, and squamous cell carcinoma increased by 700 percent (see skincancer.org and cancer.gov). Young women now have a higher probability of developing melanoma than any other cancer – except breast cancer. In another decade our daughters and nieces may be doing walks for melanoma instead of breast cancer – only they will need to be held at night…or in the local shopping mall.

Numerous scientific studies have shown a link between indoor tanning and skin cancer. Some show that cancer risk is increased by 70% or more for indoor tanners – and that risk is higher for those who started tanning at younger ages. Given that national tanning rates for teen girls range from 9% at age 14 to 27% (more than one in four) by age 17, the use of tanning beds by teens has become a national public health issue.

In fact, last year California banned the use of tanning beds by those under 18, with many other states currently debating similar legislation. In testimony this month to the Connecticut Public Health Committee in support of the state’s proposed teen tanning law, Dr. Philip Kerr, a prominent dermatologist, stated that “the science is clear – if you use indoor tanning beds, your risk of developing skin cancer significantly increases.”

The issue driving such legislation is that young people are often not well informed about the risks of indoor tanning or don’t take them seriously – and current restrictions and guidelines designed to protect teens are not working. Dr Kerr points out that teen girls are three times more likely than women in their early twenties to believe that tanning beds do not cause skin cancer. Furthermore, an undercover congressional investigation revealed that “90 percent of tanning salons denied the known risks of indoor tanning.” Salons also fail to abide by FDA-recommended limits on and spacing of initial tanning visits. Their “unlimited tanning” and membership deals fly directly in the face of these guidelines and the science behind skin cancer.

So what is a concerned parent to do? Changing the beauty norm for young women – particularly during the challenging teen years – is an uphill battle, especially if we adults also reinforce the desire for a golden tan. However, information about the dangers of indoor tanning can help. Make sure you and your teen read the congressional investigative report because her local tanning salon will direct her to lots of slick industry-sponsored websites that try to refute the so-called “myths and hype” about indoor tanning risks. But if preventing your teen from tanning doesn’t seem realistic, be sure she is aware of the riskiest practices as outlined by the FDA, such as skipping the goggles and starting with long exposures. Also, make use of the regulations that may exist in your state. Although under-age tanning isn’t yet banned in most of the country, many states require parental permission – either written or in-person. This can help you monitor, and mould, your teen’s tanning habits.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


2 Responses to “Tanning Beds and Teens – A Toxic Combination?”

  1. Great informations on Tanning Beds and Teens. Really good job on the site, Keep up the good work!

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      Thanks so much Karen! We love that you stopped by to tell us you liked the post! Have a great weekend! 🙂

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