As someone with a pale complexion (I prefer the term porcelain), I get the appeal of having a summer glow. But the risks of too many ultraviolet (UV) rays—sunburn and skin cancer—are enough to make me lather on the sunscreen and head for the shade whenever I’m outside.
But the sun isn’t the only source of skin-damaging UV. Despite studies that document the dangers of tanning beds, young people are still tanning indoors too frequently. In 2013, the tanning salon industry collected an estimated $5 billion in revenue and the year before, nearly one-third of white women aged 18 years to 25 years reported using tanning beds, despite the fact that indoor tanning before age 35 increases the risk of melanoma later by 75%.
And that data continues to mount. The most recent study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, shows that even if you don’t get a sunburn while indoor tanning, it still raises your risk for skin cancer. The scientists looked at 1167 melanoma patients who were matched to 1101 control subjects and found that the melanoma patients who reported no burns were still four times as likely to be indoor tanners than the cancer-free participants. They were also more likely to start tanning at younger ages, confirming that the more exposure to the harmful UV rays, the greater the cancer risk.
Given what we know about indoor tanning and the dangers of ultraviolet radiation, why are tanning beds still so popular? There’s intriguing hints that tanning, and the effect of UV on the body, may be similar to an addiction, but the problem may be more social than biological.
For one, the bronze glow of a tan has long been valued as somehow healthier and sexier than a pale complexion. Maybe because of this cultural bias, public health officials have been slower to warn people about the dangers of UV rays and even slower to regulate tanning-related devices like indoor beds. Ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning was first recognized as a carcinogen in 2009 and the first state laws to limit indoor tanning by adolescents went into effect in 2012. States are now enacting laws to keep people under age 18 out of tanning salons, and the Food and Drug Administration is currently considering adding more informed warning labels to beds. But for now, they are still playing catch-up.
Study author DeAnn Lazovich, an associate professor of public health says we are just beginning to increase the public’s awareness of indoor tanning-related harms so that people are aware that tanning beds can be just as dangerous as the sun when it comes to skin cancer. But it will take more than public health messages to convince people that tans aren’t healthy. “I think that those of us with lighter skin pigmentation still put too much value on a tanned appearance as a marker of health and beauty, when the opposite is true,” she says. “A tan is a marker of skin damage that could lead to melanoma. I hope that we can begin to change this point of view.”