By Meghan Vivo
Glowing, sun-kissed skin is high on some teens’ list of beauty essentials. With immediate results that produce a look of health and vitality, and health risks that seem eons away, some teens go to dangerous lengths in search of a darker shade of bronze. An estimated 2.3 million teens step into a tanning bed at least once a year, some to look “picture perfect” for prom night, others to maintain a celebrity tan year-round.
Doctors worry that this obsession with “fake n bake” is directly related to a spike in skin cancer rates among American youth. White adolescent females and young people exposed under age 20 are putting themselves at the greatest risk of developing the most common, and most deadly, forms of skin cancer. Caucasian women between 16 and 49 years of age make up 70 percent of those who regularly visit tanning salons, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And the incidence of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has doubled in the U.S. since 1975 among women ages 15 to 29.
Young people know the dangers of tanning, but feel so strongly about the immediate rewards that the risks seem small in comparison. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology, 92 percent of the respondents understood that getting a tan from the sun is dangerous, but 65 percent were still convinced they look better when they have a tan.
Addicted to Tanning?
Why do teenagers continue to tan despite all of the known risks? Some experts believe that tanning has become a type of addiction for young people. Dubbed “tanorexia” by the media, there is evidence that links the obsession with tanning with the biological foundation of other addictions, such as the production of endorphins.
A study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior and conducted by researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center found that more than 25 percent of the 400 students at Virginia Commonwealth University surveyed reported symptoms of tanning dependence, including symptoms similar to alcohol and drug-addicted individuals. The researchers measured tolerance to tanning, withdrawal from tanning, and difficulty controlling the behavior despite awareness of its negative impact.
The relaxation and stress relief associated with sun exposure have proven simply irresistible to some teens. A study done by researchers at Wake Forest University, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found that participants thought UV exposure was not only desirable for improving appearances, but also was somewhat addictive. The study’s authors concluded, “The relaxing and reinforcing effects of UV exposure contribute to tanning behavior in frequent tanners and should be explored in greater detail.”
No Safe Amount of UV Exposure
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, accounting for half of all human cancers with over a million new cases diagnosed every year in the United States. Described by the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Dermatology as“the health peril equivalent of cigarettes,” dermatologists say even one trip to the tanning booth can result in DNA damage that can cause skin cancer.
While dermatologists and health experts have likened a “safe” tan to a “safe” cigarette, the tanning industry argues that because controlled tanning can prevent sunburn, indoor tanning is actually safer than outdoor tanning. But this is not the case. It is reported that up to 90 percent of all skin cancers are associated with ultraviolet radiation. Indoor tanning lamps can emit high levels of both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, and high-pressure UVA sunlamps can emit as much as 15 times the amount of UVA emitted by the sun, significantly increasing the risk of skin cancer.
Whether exposed in a tanning bed or on the beach, there is no safe tan. That bronzed glow is the skin’s visible response to damage from harmful ultraviolet rays, which over time can cause cancer, skin discolorations, wrinkles, leathery or sagging skin, and eye problems.
A Ban on Tan
In the face of these dangers, various health officials and organizations have recommended a ban on indoor tanning among youth 18 years of age and under (though these recommendations have not been heeded thus far). The World Health Organization estimates that up to 60,000 deaths worldwide are caused each year by excessive UV exposure and has urged teens under 18 to avoid indoor tanning. The American Cancer Society recommends avoiding tanning devices, especially among those under age 18, noting that up to 80 percent of an individual’s lifetime sun exposure occurs during childhood and adolescence.
More than half of U.S. states have passed laws restricting teens from using tanning salons. Some states have banned children under a certain age (usually 14) from indoor tanning, some require doctors’ consent for children and younger teens, and others require parental consent. But studies show that laws governing indoor tanning are ineffective, primarily because they aren’t properly enforced and many aren’t sufficiently strict. And parents aren’t standing in the way, either, perhaps because they don’t understand the risks of UV exposure, or in many cases, because they, too, enjoy the indoor tanning experience.
Tips for Staying Safe in the Sun
Skin cancer is a very real and very significant risk that has been directly correlated to excessive UV exposure. Knowing the dangers, here are a few sun safety tips you can use to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays:
Even better than sunless tanning products, encourage your child to accept herself as she is, whether naturally dark or pale as a ghost. She can look great and feel good about herself without putting herself at risk for a potentially life-threatening form of cancer.