Despite serious risk of future negative health effects, some teens still choose to use tanning beds, especially before prom.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, if someone uses tanning beds before the age of 35 he or she increases his or her risk of contracting melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, by 75 percent. However, over one third of Grant High School senior girls attending their prom said that they were planning on getting tanning bed services before the dance (of 53 surveyed). If tanning is so harmful, why are adolescents still doing it?
16-year-old Victoria Kirkland of St. Mary’s Academy has a tanning bed in her home that she tans in once a week, and she is planning on tanning more often before prom. She says, “I like how [tanning] makes my complexion look … My parents are fine with it, in fact they tan too.” Similarly, 18-year-old Avalon Bryce of Grant High School says that she tans before prom “so I look better in pictures.”
Besides causing premature aging effects, tanning is one of the most significant causes of skin cancer. About 90 percent of non-melanoma diagnoses are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States today, with over two million diagnoses a year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Tanning beds emit up to three times more intense UVA radiation than natural sunlight, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch. UVA rays are the longer rays of the UV spectrum that penetrate further into the skin than other UV rays.
Barbara Resnick, MD, a Catlin Gabel parent and dermatologist at the Portland Dermatology Clinic, explains what tanning does to your skin: “Basically all of the UV [rays] change [skin] DNA. Your body is pretty good at fixing injuries to DNA, but if you keep on insulting the DNA, it gets harder to fix.” Sunscreen is what protects from direct DNA damage, but overexposure can lead to sunburn and other future health effects, like skin cancer. “13 percent of women ages 18 to 22 [use tanning beds] regularly,” says Resnick. “I have seen teenagers [who use tanning beds] that have pre-cancerous moles.”
Despite the serious risk of damaging skin, Kirkland says that she doesn’t ever think of or worry about possible health effects. Bryce says that she only tans before prom or sometimes before vacation “because I know the risks and and how [they] make me more susceptible to skin cancer, so it doesn’t seem worth it … In the bed I put sunscreen on my face and chest because that skin is the most sensitive … most people don’t [put sunscreen on] and think I’m pretty weird for it.”
Tanning facilities don’t seem to worry about potential health effects at all: in a study conducted by JAMA Dermatology, college students pretended to be 15-year-old girls and called over 3,000 tanning facilities nationwide to inquire about tanning bed use. According to NPR, only 11 percent of the facilities followed the FDA recommendation of advising new members to tan no more than three days a week. Additionally, Palm Beach Tan, a popular national tanning franchise, offers no form of health risk warnings on its website. However, facilities do seem to worry about liability issues: Bryce says “I signed [some papers] but I am aware of the risks and [wouldn’t] blame the people at the tanning [salon for future health effects].”
Although Oregon bans commercial tanning for minors without parental consent, Bryce says that when she tanned at Venus and Mars, a local tanning facility, they didn’t thoroughly check if she was under eighteen.
Legislation in the United States has also addressed the possible dangers of tanning: California and Vermont both have bans on all minors tanning in commercial tanning salons, and Oregon’s House of Representatives recently passed a proposed bill to ban commercial tanning bed use for minors without a physician’s referral on March 7, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Palm Beach Tan offers both spray tanning and bed tanning. A representative of Palm Beach Tan in Northwest Portland comments, “Most of the [minors] that come in before prom come in to get spray tans,” as opposed to bed tanning. This trend is also seen among Catlin Gabel and St. Mary’s Academy upperclassmen girls attending prom, with nearly zero saying that they would use tanning beds, yet 17 percent saying they were planning on using a self-tanning lotion, and four percent saying they were planning on getting a spray tan (of 90 surveyed).
Although it seems that a minority of teens choose to tan before prom, do the reasons that they choose to tan outweigh the possible health effects? Even though Palm Beach Tan says that the sun is “the fundamental ingredient for all life forms,” perhaps laying under fluorescent ultraviolet bulbs isn’t the best way to glow.