A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend who was getting ready to take his wife to Cancun for a week vacation. He said he had lot’s to do to get ready—including a few trips to the tanning salon to get a “starter” tan.
It’s estimated that on any given day, about 1,000,000 (yes, that’s a MILLION) of us use ultraviolet radiation (UV) for skin tanning. Most of this “tanning” is done in tanning beds. Data provided by the indoor tanning industry indicates that 10% of the U.S. population use tanning beds each year. This is a surprising statistic considering that melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—is increasing more rapidly than any other type of cancer. But can we really stick the tanning industry with the blame?
During just a little over a decade, from 1992 to 2004, the National Cancer Institute discovered that girls and women age 15 to 39 experienced a nearly 3% ANNUAL increase (that’s 36% over 12 years) in melanoma diagnoses—an alarming number according to the New England Journal of Medicine who reported the findings. Researchers suggested that this dramatic increase could be at least partially linked to the expanding popularity of tanning beds during the same period.
In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a working group of the World Health Organization, made a clear statement about tanning beds and skin cancer. After weighing study results from around the world, 20 scientists from nine different countries added tanning beds to IARC’s “Group One” list, which identifies the most harmful types of radiation that cause cancer in humans.
With this kind of bad press, you would think that tanning salons would be taking it on the chin. Not exactly. According to Statista.com, revenue for the industry held steady at about $5 billion annually from 2008 to 2013. You might find it surprising to know that there are 5,000 more tanning salons than McDonald’s restaurants in America. Just as there must be a large group that think burgers and fries constitute a good meal, there must also be a lot of us who believe tanning somehow contributes to healthy skin—despite growing evidence to the contrary.
What concerns health officials about the continued popularity of tanning salons, is the demographic that frequents them most often—young women. As was alluded to earlier, rising cases of melanoma have a correlation to this age group. Among the one million daily tanning salon visitors in the U.S., 71% are women between age 16 and 29. Not surprisingly, melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 25-29.
No doubt concerned by this, The University of North Carolina School of Journalism conducted a survey in 2014 of sorority girls to find out why young women continue to use tanning beds despite being generally aware of the risks. Almost half the women surveyed had used tanning beds within the last year, and the majority had started using them in their teens. Surprisingly, the main reason cited for using tanning beds was not to improve their appearance, but because of convenience and that the practice made them feel good. Many of the women reported that salon tanning was relaxing and felt it “reduced stress”.
One of the most striking findings of the study, was that most of the women surveyed were aware of the risks but tanned anyway. The UNC team concluded that those who are trying to get the message out about the dangers of tanning beds are going to have to be more “strategic in creating messages to impact this behavior”.
One person that recently upped the ante in educating the public about the dangers of tanning is Tawny Willougby, who recently shared a “selfie” that graphically illustrates the risks of frequent UV exposure. Tawny began tanning as a teen—often several times a week, and even owned her own tanning bed at one point. Now, at the age of 27, she is battling with recurrences of skin cancer she attributes to her frequent time spent in the sun and the use of tanning beds. The photo below shows her during recent treatments for pre-cancerous lesions. On Tawny’s Website, you can view a visual timeline that chronicles recent treatments. After looking at Tawny’s photo, you wonder how anyone could justify frequent exposure to UV radiation—whether from the sun or a tanning bed.
“If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go! This is what skin cancer treatment can look like,” Tawny relates. She now recommends that everyone wear sunscreen and opt for a spray tan rather than time in a tanning bed. “You only get one skin and you should take care of it,” she warns. “Learn from other people’s mistakes. Don’t let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up. That’s my biggest fear now that I have a two year old little boy of my own.”
Watch a video about Tawny:
Hopefully, this blog will help encourage people—especially young women—to avoid unprotected time in the sun and the use of tanning beds. The evidence is overwhelming that the “pleasures” that might be enjoyed from tanning are not worth the risks.