The title of a congressional report last month said it all: “False and Misleading Health Information Provided to Teens by the Indoor Tanning Industry.” With students already heading to tanning salons before next month’s spring break, Barbara Gilchrest, a School of Medicine professor of dermatology, is echoing the report’s warnings against bronzing on a tanning bed.
The risk of melanoma jumps 75 percent for people who begin indoor tanning before the age of 30, and among people who’ve tanned 10 times or more by that age, the risk of a melanoma diagnosis is six times higher than for those who’ve never tanned inside, according to the report. UVA, a type of ultraviolet (UV) light, from sunlamps, “can be as much as 10 to 15 times more powerful than midday sun,” the report to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce warns. And skin cancer rates have shot up along with the popularity of tanning. “Melanoma is now the most common form of cancer for white women between the ages of 15 and 29 years old,” the report says. “Since 1980, the rate of melanoma in this group has increased by 50 percent.”
Yet congressional investigators posing as teens in calls to salons found that 90 percent denied any health risk to fair-skinned teen girls. More than half said tanning would not increase a fair-skinned teen’s cancer risk. Four out of five salons wrongly insisted that indoor tanning had health benefits, from increasing vitamin D to preventing cancer.
The federal government classifies tanning beds (along with Band-Aids and tongue depressors) among the least regulated of medical devices. The Food and Drug Administration is pondering tighter regulations, as recommended by a 2010 advisory panel, a majority of whose members also supported age restrictions on tanning bed use. Massachusetts and some other states require that minors have parental consent before tanning indoors, but one study found just 19 percent of Bay State salons checking, according to the House report.
“Everybody gets a fair amount of UV exposure, even if they think they are practicing safe sun,” says Gilchrest. But indoor tanning is dangerous, she says, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an advisory group to the government, issued a report in November debunking industry claims that tanning is good for you. BU Today talked to her about the congressional report and its recommendations.
BU Today: Is it your sense that college students, including BU’s, patronize tanning salons regularly?
Gilchrest: In general, heavy usage certainly continues through college age, the 16-to-25 age group, very conscious of appearance, very much in the dating game.
Why do young women predominate as tanning customers?
I think it’s more socially acceptable for women to actively spend time on improving their appearance. Certainly young men do try to tan. But doing things that consciously are intended to improve your appearance—I think that’s something generally viewed as feminine.
Is tanning like alcohol or sweets—safe if used in moderation?
Over the course of a year, we all get a lot of UV light, even in an area like Boston. And nobody applies the proper amount of sunscreen. They apply somewhere between a quarter and a half of what is recommended by the manufacturer. So why is it a big deal in a tanning booth? One reason is there are areas of the body getting exposure in a tanning bed that are probably not getting it otherwise. And the intensity of the UV is probably many times higher. We don’t know, frankly, what that does. It may overwhelm the body’s ability to repair the damage.
Should indoor tanning be illegal for minors?
I strongly recommend that people not use tanning booths, that it’s dangerous, that it encourages them not to use sunscreen. I would also recommend that people not smoke. Whether it should be against the law gets into how much should be forbidden and how much should be left to people’s judgment after education. But to make it a bit more difficult is a great idea—at a minimum, to have parental approval required for minors, and to go after the tanning parlors that don’t ask for it.
Will the feds pass stricter regulations or does the tanning industry have political clout similar to the banking industry, for instance, enabling them to block tougher legislation?
They are probably not up there with the banks, but there is a big tanning lobby, and they spend a lot of money on it. Until the Institute of Medicine report came out last November, industry spokesmen were saying there’s a vitamin D deficiency in the United States, you need to use tanning beds to prevent every condition under the sun. The IOM panel released an analysis of over 1,000 publications and studies and concluded there was absolutely no evidence to support those statements.
Without making tanning illegal for the young, how might we alert them to the risks?
I wish I didn’t think it would be a problem five years from now. I suspect it will. As with the antismoking campaign, you just have to chip away at providing education: from their school curriculum, from magazines read by teens. More importantly, just make it not cool to be tan. There is a shift away from at least dark tans being attractive. The American Academy of Dermatology and other groups met with editors of fashion magazines and teen magazines and asked them to use models that were less tanned. If you look at the Coppertone ads, the baby with her bathing suit being pulled down by the dog is not as tanned as she used to be.
One of the problems is that young people think they are immortal. And that by the time they are 30, they should be dead anyway, because it’s disgusting to be 30.
What’s your advice for students planning to hit the beach for spring break?
My advice: safe sun to the extent possible. Sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, with reapplication after swimming. They will still tan, if somewhat less darkly, but the risk of burning is much less. Hats, shirts, or cover-ups—many are quite alluring or fun to wear—beach umbrellas, midday breaks inside for lunch or other activities. And good genes from their parents!