The Darker Side of Tanning Beds
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By Lisa Seachrist Chiu

The Darker Side of Tanning Beds

A link between UV radiation and cancer raises the stakes for minors who tan and spurs government action to protect them

By Lisa Seachrist Chiu


It's that sun-deprived time of year when pasty-white young adults and teenagers look forward to spring break vacations and high school proms. In preparation, many consider a visit to the tanning bed to get a "base tan" or a "healthy glow."

Unfortunately, this perception of health runs counter to the judgment of the National Toxicology Program, which has listed broad-spectrum ultraviolet (UV) radiation as a known human carcinogen since 2002. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) led the way in calling for an outright ban on indoor tanning for minors two years later—driven by an epidemic of skin cancer in the last decade, including an unexplained increase in the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, among young women ages 20 to 29. In the last two years, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization joined the dermatologists in pushing for the ban.

In the face of such strong recommendations, 25 states have enacted restrictions on minors using tanning beds. This year, at least two more states—Colorado and Utah—are expected to undertake restrictions. Some measures prohibit tanning for children under age 13 or 14 and most require parents to provide consent for older minors. Wisconsin has the strictest constraint, prohibiting indoor tanning for everyone under the age of 16.

Many dermatologists liken indoor tanning to smoking and drinking. "This is a free country. We allow people to smoke and drink—we just don't allow minors to do it," says James M. Spencer, a dermatologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, who also maintains a private practice in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We know excessive UV exposure causes skin cancer."

John Overstreet, a spokesman for the Indoor Tanning Association, says that the industry supports the idea that parents provide consent for minors. However, he asserts no study has ever conclusively linked indoor tanning with melanoma. And UV radiation exposure produces vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones and may play a role in preventing some cancers. "I think a lot of the benefits of vitamin D have been underplayed," Overstreet says.

Spencer calls that argument "a smoke screen," and fellow dermatologists agree.

"No one uses a tanning bed to get their vitamin D, they use it to get a tan," says Darrell S. Rigel, a dermatologist at New York University Medical Center. "You can get adequate vitamin D from incidental sun exposure while wearing an SPF 15 sunscreen" and by consuming vitamin D–fortified foods such as milk and cereal.

Cumulative lifetime UV exposure places people at risk for all types of skin cancers, notes AAD spokeswoman Sandra Read, a Washington, D.C.–based dermatologist. "The use of tanning beds adds to that overall exposure. There is a safer way to tan—it comes in a bottle."

In addition to grassroots efforts to restrict indoor tanning, the 109th Congress began to consider its dangers. The proposed Tanning Accountability and Notification (TAN) Act was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in 2006. If approved, the bill would mandate that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration evaluate current labeling requirements for indoor tanning beds to determine if they adequately advise consumers of the risks of such tanning, and hold public hearings, solicit comments from the public and report its findings back to Congress.