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Frying to Be Pretty: Is Indoor Tanning Safer?

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When my pale-skinned, Anglo-Irish father was a kid, his parents would lovingly scoot him out of the house and into the blazing California sun with the order to, “Go out and get a good, healthy sunburn!” As we bask in the enlightenment of the modern age, however, such a scenario might warrant a call to Child Protective Services.

Not so long ago, a feverish red hide was perceived as a sign of good health. But with scientific research of recent decades consistently linking UV-ray exposure to the development of deadly skin cancers, staying shielded from the rays seems like a no-brainer. Instead, shrewd retailers have brought this bad habit indoors with ubiquitous tanning bed franchises like Hollywood Tans, L.A. Tans, and Planet Beach. Americans with bronze ambitions flocked to the beds like moths to a flame, and the indoor tanning industry now brings in $5 billion annually.

Indoor tanning—like smoking and the occasional six-margarita evening—is one of those guilty behaviors that we all know probably isn’t super-duper good for us, but which many otherwise-intelligent women indulge in anyway. Not surprisingly, young women constitute the majority of tanning bed users. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), every day more than one million Americans patronize tanning salons and over seventy percent of customers are Caucasian women between sixteen and forty-nine.

Preventative Medicine
In response to the escalating number of young tanning bed users—and the correlated rise in skin cancers among this population—the AAD has launched an aggressive campaign to educate young women on this issue. Print ads, internet banners, and TV spots warn of the harm that tanning beds can cause to users’ health and appearance. The ads are direct and informative, albeit a little grating in that strained, teen-speak way: one poster quips that “tanning beds can B 2 risky 4 wrds.”

Spokesperson for the campaign is Miss Maryland 2006, Brittany Leitz, who knows the dangers of tanning all too well. She began tanning, (both at salons and outdoors), at the age of seventeen, and was diagnosed with stage II melanoma at twenty years old; she has since undergone twenty-seven surgeries to remove the tumor and other moles on her body, and has the scars to prove it. Melanoma is the second most common cancer in women between twenty and thirty-five, and the leading cause of cancer death in women ages twenty-five to thirty.

It’s nice to know that the AAD professionals who might actually benefit from our health problems are taking steps toward preventing them. And it’s a good thing, since the tanning salon industry is pretty self-serving in its portrayal of the dangers and benefits of UV exposure. Contrary to what salon-owners claim, regular tanning is not “needed” for the production of Vitamin D; even in winter weather, the incidental rays absorbed during your daily routine should be sufficient.

Salons also purport to offer a safe tanning experience by filtering out most UVB (sunburn-causing) light. But the sunlamps’ flood of UVA rays penetrates deep into the skin, causing genetic damage to skin cells and accelerating the skin’s aging process. The National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization have indicated both UVB and UVA rays as causes of cancer.

A Ban on Indoor Tanning?
With so much information underlining the hazards of tanning bed usage, does it become the government’s responsibility to do away with tanning salons? Not really. After all, sunlight is a natural resource, and many people still contract skin cancer the old-fashioned way—by baking out in the sun. Indoor tanning, like drinking and smoking, can be regulated but is unlikely to be abolished.

What’s important is that aspiring golden girls get the facts on tanning before going under the lamps. I spoke with my friend Maria, a twenty-two year old Ivy-Leaguer and future law student, about her tanning habit. She has an unlimited tanning package at a local salon and likes to go three or four times per week (promotions like this encourage frequent use by customers wanting to maximize their spending). She admits that tanning can be addictive: “You look more attractive when you are tan, you feel thinner, your skin is clearer, it’s way cheaper than going on vacation to get that tan you want, plus it’s the only way to stay dark during the school year.” When asked whether she’s concerned with the health risks associated with tanning beds, she replies that “Occasionally I worry about the long term effects of tanning beds … but I don’t really think about it too often. At the moment, the short term effects outweigh the risks.”

Such shortsightedness is a downfall for many of us who should know better. But hopefully, with more efforts like the AAD’s public awareness campaign, and concerned friends sharing the facts about tanning with one another, young women will think twice about getting into bed with cancer-causing UV rays. Fortunately, the alternatives to a sun-baked tan are just as sexy: add a skin-tinting moisturizer to your daily routine, dust on some bronzer, or adopt the glamorous porcelain look a la Dita von Teese. The verdict is in: Indoor tanning is out.

For more information on risks associated with tanning beds, check out the following links:

Updated May 14, 2009

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