Just say no to tanning beds

A new Surgeon General's report warns of skin cancer risks

Published: August 20, 2014 07:00 PM

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Nearly a decade ago, Consumer Reports warned about the dangers of indoor tanning. We surveyed nearly 300 salons across the country and found that they weren’t warning customers about the risks, including skin cancer and premature wrinkling. Now the Surgeon General has come out with a report urging people to avoid tanning beds. Every year, more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer may be related to indoor tanning, according to a 2014 study published in JAMA Dermatology. Using a tanning bed can increase your risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, by 23 percent. Indoor tanning can also increase your risk of basal cell skin cancer by 29 percent and squamous cell cancer by 67 percent. What’s more, it can lead to wrinkles and age spots.

Despite the dangers, about 6 percent of adults visit tanning salons. The majority are women between the ages of 18 and 25, but high school girls are also big fans. Nearly 21 percent tanned indoors in the past year. That’s especially risky, because using the devices before age 25 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 35 percent, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology

Many people think indoor tanning is safer than sunbathing outdoors because the beds tend to emit less of the sunburn- and skin cancer-causing ultraviolet B radiation and more of the UVA variety. But UVA radiation isn’t any safer than UVB; it penetrates the skin more deeply, and it can contribute to skin cancer, as well as aging. Plus, studies have found that tanning beds may expose you to four to 13 times the amount of UVA you’d get from the midday sun, according to the Surgeon General report.

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration is increasing its oversight of the tanning industry. In May, the FDA announced that manufacturers will need the agency’s approval to market tanning beds and booths, which until now have been subject to the same regulatory oversight as benign products like bandages and tongue depressors. The devices must also carry a visible “black-box warning” stating that they should not be used on people under age 18. Marketing materials must also carry additional warnings, including “People repeatedly exposed to UV radiation should be regularly evaluated for skin cancer.”

States are also taking action: Ten have laws preventing indoor tanning for minors. While these are steps in the right direction, the American Academy of Dermatology would like to see a ban on tanning devices for non-medical purposes. We continue to recommend avoiding them. 

Susan Feinstein

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