Blair Horner: The Dangers Of Indoor Tanning

May 7, 2018

Finally, Spring has arrived.  The weather is warming up and many think of lying in the sun to get some relaxation and a tan.  Others look to a short-cut: Indoor tanning.  You can see it already, with high school prom and other big events, like graduations, looming, many high schoolers are rushing to look their best, some go to indoor tanning salons.  That decision could change their lives.

Indoor tanning raises the risks of skin cancer as well as immune suppression, eye damage, and premature aging of the skin. The World Health Organization has elevated tanning beds to the highest cancer risk category - group 1 – “carcinogenic to humans.”

Subsequent research by the nation’s top medical facilities, including Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Public Health, has reinforced that finding.  In New York, according to the American Cancer Society an estimated 4,920 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Tens of thousands more will be diagnosed with basal or squamous cell carcinomas of the skin.  Many of those will be the result of frequent use of indoor tanning.

UV radiation exposure, particularly from indoor tanning, is a leading risk factor for the development of skin cancers. While excessive exposure to the sun permanently increases one’s cancer risk through cumulative damage, indoor tanning compounds the risks by delivering concentrated bursts.  This results in faster mutations in the body, as the UV rays alter the configuration of human DNA. This explains why individuals who have used tanning beds have a much greater risk of developing skin cancers as compared to those who have never used tanning devices.

The risk is significant to all users, but there has been increasing data showing the impact it can have on younger people, particularly those under the age of 18.  Currently, a substantial number of young teens are using tanning beds, with use increasing with age.  Among those teens, the rates were highest among female 17-year-old high school students.

Peer-reviewed scientific studies strengthen the indoor tanning-cancer connection. A recent review of 27 European studies concluded:

Sunbed use is associated with a significant increase in risk of melanoma. This risk increases with number of sunbed sessions and with initial usage at a young age (<35 years). The cancerous damage associated with sunbed use is substantial and could be avoided by strict regulations.

Here in the United States, a growing number of researchers have identified the use of indoor tanning to be linked to cancers. Some key findings: 

  • There has been a dramatic increase in the use of indoor tanning facilities – particularly among teenagers.  Since 1998, teens reporting use of tanning beds has increased from 1% to 27%.  The more you expose yourself to UV radiation, the more likely you are to get skin cancer.
  • When the World Health Organization determined that the UV rays found in indoor tanning booths were a human carcinogen, they also stated that individuals who used indoor tanning devices before the age of 30 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent. 
  • People who use indoor tanning equipment face a 59 percent higher risk of melanoma than those who do not, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation and World Health Organization all have called on states to bar children under 18 from tanning salons.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states and the District of Columbia ban the use of indoor tanning beds and booths for people under 18.  New York is not one of them.

Those over the age of 18 also need to know the facts.  Unfortunately, New York’s warning labels at indoor tanning facilities and its mandated disclosures say little about the cancer dangers associated with the use of indoor tanning.  The Cuomo Administration has the regulatory authority and obligation to strengthen those warnings.

States across the nation have already responded to the weight of scientific evidence and the staggering harm caused by indoor tanning by banning its use by minors.  New York should act too. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.