On an average day in the United States, more than one million people tan in tanning salons, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And of the nearly 28 million people who tan indoors annually in the U.S., 2.3 million are teens.
While in search of a golden tan all year round, those millions of tanning salon patrons are exposing themselves to dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation. The AAD has even identified the exposure from artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogen.
“In the last year, we’ve seen two patients with melanoma under the age of 18, who admitted to frequently using tanning salons,” said David F. Butler, MD, Scott & White dermatologist. “We’re not used to seeing patients that young. It makes us really worry that could be a potential problem.”
Not only is contracting skin cancer, in particular melanoma, a serious threat to over-tanners, but there are other risks associated with indoor tanning.
“Some medications can cause a patient to develop a severe drug reaction when exposed to too much ultraviolet light,” Dr. Butler said. “And sunlight is known to basically age the skin. Most people that develop wrinkles do so, not because of their chronological age, but because of the ultraviolet light that they’ve received in their life.”
The bottom line, the dermatologist says, is that there is really no safe way to tan using UV light.
“The only other thing people might consider are the tanning sprays and topical tanning agents that I believe contain dyhydroxyacetone,” he said. “When applied to the skin it turns a reddish brown color.”
Although using a tanning spray or lotion might give you the summer glow you’re missing from hours at the tanning salon, the doctor said patients still need additional sun protection.
“We recommend using a sun block, sunscreen, cream or lotion that has an SPF of at least 30 or more,” Dr. Butler said, “Apply directly to the sun-exposed areas on a regular basis.”
The worst time for developing sun damage is during the day between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. So, simply not being outdoors during those times will help. But if you are an active outdoorsman, there are actually clothes that can help.
“There are a variety of new clothing manufacturers who cater to people who want to protect their skin,” Dr. Butler said. “They actually give a sun protector value to their clothing.”
Websites like Coolibar.com offer online shoppers the opportunity to order swimwear, hats and clothing with SPF values of 50 and higher.
Although there are many alternatives to baking beneath fluorescent lamps to get a tan, the tanning industry made an estimated $2.6 billion in revenue in 2010.
Dr. Butler believes this is because tanning salon advertising campaigns have been successful and teens don’t know how dangerous the exposure can be.
“I want to tell them that frequent tanning is a real danger of causing skin cancer,” he said.
Because of the serious danger to teens, Texas legislature passed a law in September that bars anyone under the age of 16.5 from using a tanning device. And those between the ages of 16.5 and 18 must have a parent or guardian’s permission in writing at the salon before they can use a tanning bed.
For more information on the risks of indoor tanning and how to protect your skin from damaging UV exposure, go to aad.org or visit Scott & White’s Division of Dermatology website.