It’s prom season and teens have found the perfect dress, the perfect shoes, and they are thinking about getting a base tan just to give themselves what some like to call a little color. As a dermatologist, skin cancer surgeon, and mother, I understand the appeal, but parents should take a closer look at the practice of using indoor tanning equipment.
Indoor tanning has come under renewed scrutiny after a recent study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found the incidence of melanoma in young adults has soared, with a sixfold increase in the past forty years. The rise is particularly noteworthy in young women ages eighteen to thirty-nine (the largest users of tanning beds), where the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold from 1970 to 2009, and fourfold in young men. Because of this, I advise my patients not to risk indoor tanning. Furthermore, the practice will not be an option at my house when my pre-teen daughter begins to think about tanning. The risks are just too great and the relationship between indoor tanning and skin cancer is thoroughly documented.
It is a public safety issue that is not going away, and now carries legal implications. At least thirty states have imposed limits on tanning for teens, and Vermont and California ban anyone younger than eighteen from using a sun-bed. In Europe, laws prohibiting teens from tanning beds have been enacted in twenty-two countries, eighteen of them since 2009. In this past legislative session, eighteen states (including Virginia) considered measures banning the use of indoor tanning devices for those under eighteen, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Because one in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime, the issue is a multi-generational one, but teens need to hear now that there is no truly safe way to tan the skin – indoors or out. As parents, we need to face the reality that most teens want a tan. I encourage my patients and friends to be smart about it. Know your risk. Important factors like family and personal history, use of tanning beds, repeated sunburns, history of smoking, skin tone, eye and hair color – all play an important role in determining your skin cancer risk. Of course, everyone should respect the powerful rays of the sun and protect their skin, but those who have these characteristics are at the greatest risk of developing skin cancer: blue or green eyes; red or blonde hair; fair complexion; don’t tan easily; personal or family history of skin cancer or atypical moles; history of excessive sun exposure (frequent burning); and presence of freckles, and more than twenty-five moles.
As parents, we set limits, and we discourage many behaviors because of long-term health consequences – take smoking, for example. Is there a parent who would willingly permit their child to smoke? I would encourage parents not to allow their children to practice indoor tanning, to talk to a dermatologist, and to examine the risks associated with indoor tanning independently online.
Because research on spray-tanning is inconclusive, I cannot comment on its safety for teens or anyone else. But I will say this: We need to reassure our children that they can look and feel absolutely lovely on prom night – or any night – with their skin the color nature intended it to be.