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Tanning and Skin Care

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Why Is Tanning So Popular?

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During the long, hot days of summer, beaches and pools are packed with swimmers and sunbathers with deep bronze tans. Summer is the time for sports, outdoor jobs, and other sun-soaked activities that give the skin a chance to acquire a tan. The price of this golden skin might be a sunburn early in the summer, but to many young people, that’s no big deal.

Many adolescents and young adults, however, are no longer limiting their ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure to summertime hours in the sun. (UVR is the component of light from the sun that tans and burns the skin.) They are flocking to tanning salons, where they can get a tan year-round from tanning machines that expose the skin to UVR. Rather than resigning themselves to eight months of pale skin every year, young people may treat themselves to a few sessions of indoor tanning for special occasions, such as prom or going on vacation. Some tan regularly so that they never lose that golden color.

These trends in tanning are a huge concern for dermatologists—doctors who specialize in treating medical conditions affecting the skin—and other medical professionals. Increased UVR exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, and rates of skin cancer in the United States and worldwide have been rising. Tanning also causes wrinkles, weathering, and other signs of aging later in life. Health professionals warn over and over that there is no such thing as a safe tan. They are often frustrated that teens and young adults are aware of some of the risks of sun exposure but choose to tan anyway.

The Draws of Tanning

Today, tanning is not just a side effect of spending time outdoors. Teenagers set out to get a tan solely for cosmetic reasons. People tend to view tanned skin as healthy and attractive, and people usually feel healthier when they have a tan. Advertisements and photos of celebrities show beautiful, smiling people, often with glowing bronze skin. Many young people hang out with a crowd of friends who all tan. A teen might start out by getting a tan for a special occasion and then fall into a regular habit of tanning. Medical professionals emphasize the risks of tanning. But for many teens, a possibility of health complications far in the future is not an adequately compelling reason to give up the short-term satisfaction of deeply tanned skin.

There may be a secondary explanation for the popularity of tanning. Some studies have shown that tanning may be addictive in the same sense that drugs and alcohol are addictive. UVR exposure may cause the release of chemicals in the brain that elevate mood. In one study, 20 percent of tanners felt guilty about their tanning habits, and some tanners said they knew that tanning is unhealthy but didn’t want to stop.

Trends in Tanning

Statistics confirm the popularity of tanning. Today, indoor tanning is a $5 billion-a-year industry. Every day, more than a million people visit tanning salons. Thirty million Americans tan indoors every year, including 2.3 million teenagers. Nearly three-quarters of the customers at tanning salons are women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine. One survey of adults under twenty-five years of age found that nearly 26 percent had visited a tanning salon in the past year. Another survey of college students found that 47 percent had tanned indoors in the past year.

Public awareness campaigns have not curbed the popularity of indoor tanning, nor have they convinced teens to adequately protect their skin from the rays of the sun. They are aware of the risks of tanning—80 percent say they know that it isn’t healthy. Nevertheless, only about one-third of teenagers apply sunscreen on sunny days. (Dermatologists recommend that people use sunscreen year-round.) Most say they have been sunburned in the past year. Since UVR exposure and sunburn are risk factors for skin cancer, health professionals warn that young people might be gambling with their health just to get a tan.

Rising Rates of Skin Cancer

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both recognized that UVR is a carcinogen—an agent that directly causes cancer. Severe sunburns and excessive UVR exposure can cause damage that can lead to skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than a million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed annually in the United States, making it the most prevalent type of cancer. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer. The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)—can be cured when detected early. About 90 percent of all cases are linked to UVR exposure.

Rates of melanoma, sometimes called malignant melanoma, are also rising. Melanoma accounts for a small percentage of skin cancer cases, but it is the deadliest form of the disease. Every year, more than eight thousand people in the United States die of melanoma. Skin cancer used to be a disease of the middle aged and elderly, but more and more young people are being diagnosed with melanoma. It is now the second most common form of cancer among people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. Studies have shown that UVR exposure increases the risk of developing melanoma, although the link is not as direct as with BCC and SCC.

Tanning salon owners try to downplay the link between UVR and skin cancer. They often claim, misleadingly, that the UVR produced by tanning machines is “healthier” than sunlight. In reality, people who tan indoors are 1.5 times more likely to develop BCC and 2.5 times more likely to develop SCC. Using a tanning bed just once raises the risk of melanoma 75 percent in young people.

Legislating Indoor Tanning

Skin cancer rates have become a matter of concern for some lawmakers as well as health organizations. In 1994, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommended that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban indoor tanning. More recently, the WHO advised that people under eighteen years old should not use tanning machines at all.

About twenty state legislatures in the United States have passed laws that are intended to curb indoor tanning by teens. Many states require parental consent before teens can use tanning machines. A 2008 survey, however, showed that passing laws to discourage teen tanning had little effect on their tanning habits.

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Article Citation:

Brezina, Corona. "Tanning and Skin Care." Teen Health and Wellness. Rosen, 2010. Web. 24 Aug. 2010. <http://www.teenhealthandwellness.com/article/503/tanning-and-skin-care>.