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Melanoma on the Rise—Why Tanning Beds Aren’t Safe at Any Age

August 12, 2014

“As long as I don’t get sunburnt, it’s safe.”

“It’s a good way to get more vitamin D.”

“Being tan is much more attractive than being pale.”

“It’s part of my beauty routine.”

“It’s harmless as long as you don’t overdo it.”

Sound familiar? These are common reasons why many people think it’s OK—or even harmless—to use an indoor tanning bed. But the reality is, there is no good reason to use a tanning bed. Doctors and researchers have known for quite some time that indoor tanning directly increases a person’s risk for melanoma and other types of skin cancer. In fact, repeated exposure to tanning beds before age 30 heightens the risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent.

In recent years, melanoma has become the second most common type of cancer among people between the ages of 15 and 29. Yet, despite this alarming statistic, indoor tanning continues to be as popular as ever. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly 30 million Americans use indoor tanning beds each year. Of these, more than 2.3 million are teenagers.

How Do Tanning Beds Increase Skin Cancer Risk?

So, how does using a tanning bed increase a person’s risk for melanoma? Well, the answer is simple—it works the same way as being in the sun. Even though a tanning bed uses artificial light sources, they still emit the same, harmful UV light that the sun does. Now, imagine laying in a small, enclosed space where that UV light is extremely intense. That type of prolonged, direct exposure can be incredibly harmful to your skin, which puts you at greater risk for melanoma.

As a general rule, our skin has the ability to withstand a reasonable amount of exposure to UV light. But over time, it can damage our skin's DNA, especially when we use a tanning bed.

Think of our DNA as a “computer program” that tells our skin’s cells how to behave and operate. When a computer program gets a virus, it starts to act strange, right? The same thing happens with our skin. When it’s exposed to too much UV light, the cells start to act strange by multiplying, invading and spreading to other parts of the body when they’re not supposed to. This is how skin cancer begins to develop.

So, if that process can happen just through normal exposure to the sun, why would you allow yourself or your child to speed up that process through indoor tanning?

New Restrictions Warn About the Risks of Indoor Tanning

Thankfully, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has acknowledged the dangers that come with indoor tanning by putting stronger restrictions in place to protect people. Just a few months ago, the FDA ordered that all tanning beds now carry warnings that they should not be used by anyone under the age of 18. The reason for this, as I mentioned before, is to try to reduce the number of skin cancer cases in the United States, especially among young people.

In addition to the new age restrictions, the FDA now requires that tanning bed manufacturers include warnings about cancer risks in their pamphlets, catalogs, websites and anywhere else that promotes their products. These warnings are very similar to the Surgeon General warnings that you see on tobacco products. They are intended to alert the consumer that the product—in this case, a tanning bed—is dangerous, but that person is still free to use it, even though it can be harmful.

While this is just the first step, these warnings and restrictions are ultimately a huge step in educating people, especially those in their teens and 20s, about the dangers of tanning beds. For so many types of cancers, you see the number of cases dropping in the United States. But for melanoma, you see it rising—and one of the reasons is because many Americans don’t realize how harmful indoor tanning can be. However, bolded warning signs and stricter regulations will certainly help decrease skin cancer rates and save lives.

Although the new warnings are a step in the right direction, there’s still more work to be done. There’s always more we can do. Over the past several years, a few states in the U.S. have started to ban those under the age of 18 from using tanning beds. Without a doubt, this should be the case in all 50 states, and even more importantly, tanning beds should be banned entirely. The risk of developing melanoma may decrease slightly as you get older, but make no mistake—you’re still at risk. No matter your age, race or gender, using an indoor tanning bed isn’t safe for any reason.

What Can You Do To Teach Your Kids About the Dangers of Indoor Tanning?

In reality, it will likely be a long time before tanning beds are banned completely—and it may never happen. So, in the meantime, we have to do our best to educate ourselves and our loved ones about the dangers.

This is especially important when it comes to protecting our kids. As parents, it’s our job to sit down and talk with them about the risks of indoor tanning. But it’s not enough to just tell them once and think that will change their mind or help them make an informed decision. We must constantly ask them what they think, show them the consequences of a bad choice and, most importantly, listen to them. It’s no different than discussing other harmful adolescent behaviors—it must be an ongoing conversation. Education from parents and schools is an important step in making this change.

If you have questions about indoor tanning or would like more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.