A tan, whether you get it on the beach, in a bed, or through incidental exposure, is bad news, any way you acquire it. Tans are caused by harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning lamps, and if you have one, you’ve sustained skin cell damage.
No matter what you may hear at tanning salons, the cumulative damage caused by UV radiation can lead to premature skin aging (wrinkles, lax skin, brown spots, and more), as well as skin cancer. In fact, indoor ultraviolet (UV) tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors.
Skin Cancer Kills
Tanning beds might as well be coffins. Oncologists now believe they are to blame for the alarming spike among young women in lethal melanoma cases—the second most common cancer in adults under 30. A big part of the problem: Many women think catching indoor rays is a harmless—or worse, healthy—part of their beauty routine
It was Tricia Thompson’s hairstylist who first spotted a dark brown mole behind her ear. “I didn’t think much of it,” says Tricia, who was 32 at the time. “I went to the dermatologist and she froze it off.” But a year later, the same hairstylist saw that the mole had grown back, and this time it was a greenish-blue color.Tricia made an appointment with a different dermatologist, who took a biopsy of the mole. It was melanoma, the most serious of all skin cancers. Best possible scenario: Tricia would end up with a disfiguring scar. Worst case: The melanoma would kill her.
“I worked at an indoor tanning salon in high school and college,” she says. “I tanned an average of two or three times a week from the time I was about 14 until I was 21. I remember there was a waiver everyone had to sign, but that was just protocol. Nobody ever sat down to talk about the dangers of indoor tanning so I didn’t really think about them.
“And then I was 34, thinking, Who’s going to take care of my dog? Should I sell my house so my family doesn’t have to worry about things if I don’t make it through this?”Tricia had surgery to remove the melanoma—and the top quarter of her ear—a couple of weeks after her diagnosis. Her doctor did reconstructive surgery to replace the part of her ear he had to remove, but at her six-month follow-up appointment, the melanoma had returned. She had to have another surgery, this time to remove about a third of her earlobe.Becky Kocon was just 23 when she was diagnosed with melanoma after she spotted an irregular mole behind her knee. “I started going to tanning salons with my mom when I was 17,” says Becky, who’s now 27. “When I got to college, I’d go two or three times a week. I knew tanning wasn’t good for me, but I didn’t think I’d get cancer. At least not in my twenties.”
According to a recent Mayo Clinic study, the incidence of melanoma has increased eightfold among women ages 18 to 39 since 1970. “Melanoma is a new epidemic in young women,” says Jerry Brewer, M.D., a Mayo Clinic dermatologic surgeon and author of the study, who admits even he was shocked by these findings. “Other studies have shown an increase, but this study found melanoma occurring in women 705 percent more often. It’s astounding.”
The usual suspects are partly to blame for the scary rise in this deadly disease among twenty-and thirty-something women, including the disappearing ozone layer and the fact that we’re still getting sunburns, even though we should know better. (In fact, recent research found that half of all adults and 66 percent of whites ages 18 to 29 report they had at least one sunburn in the past year.) But because these factors affect women and men alike, and the rise in melanoma diagnoses are in young women, doctors are starting to believe indoor tanning—which can raise a person’s risk for melanoma 75 percent—is a key reason the disease has become an epidemic.
“It’s significant that melanoma is on the rise in the same group of people who use indoor tanning beds more than anyone else,” says Deborah Sarnoff, M.D., a dermatologist in Manhattan and Greenvale, New York, and senior vice president of The Skin Cancer Foundation. The numbers are striking: Thirty-two percent of white women ages 18 to 21 and 30 percent of white women ages 22 to 25 say they use indoor tanning beds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a 2012 survey found the same has been true for almost 40 percent of college students.
“If we can change the behavior of young women and get them to stop tanning, the curve of the incidence of melanoma would change,” says Brewer.