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For Your Health: The Blistering Truth About Teens and Indoor Tanning

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Dr. Graham Colditz Headshot

Part of being a teenager is feeling a sense of youthful invincibility. The health concerns of middle age are just that – concerns of middle age – and are so far away that it’s hard for teens to even think about them, let alone want to take steps to avoid them.

But more and more, evidence shows us that certain behaviors early in life can be particularly important to health risks later on, and one of those behaviors is indoor tanning.

Indoor tanning – the use of a tanning bed, tanning booth or sun lamp – increases the lifelong risk of skin cancer, including deadly melanoma. And the younger that people are when they start indoor tanning, and the more they do it, the higher the risk.

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the U.S. and is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially in young women. And rates of the disease have been rising for many years, likely in part due to indoor tanning.

“People who tan indoors more than 50 total hours are two to three times more likely to develop melanoma than non-indoor tanners,” said Dr. Lynn Cornelius, chief of dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. And the use of popular bronzer lamps, which are much more powerful than the noonday sun, adds Cornelius, increases risk even more, “over four times.”

Yet, even with its dangers, indoor tanning remains popular with many teenagers, including in parts of the Midwest.

While only around 4 percent of high school boys and 8 percent of high school girls tanned indoors in the past year in the U.S., close to 13 percent of 12th grade girls tanned indoors. For white girls who are high-school seniors, this number can climb to more than 20 percent.

And in Missouri, a recent survey found that 21 percent of 11th grade girls and 30 percent of 12th grade girls have tanned indoors. “That’s more than double the national average,” Cornelius said. “It’s alarming.”

For parents hoping to help protect their kids from the dangers of indoor tanning, a good first step is to take some time to really understand its risks and talk to their kids about them. Cornelius draws parallels to smoking, pointing out that indoor tanning devices are classified as class 1 carcinogens by the World Health Organization – the same as tobacco and arsenic.

“I think many parents don’t understand the risks – that indoor tanning is not the same as going out in the sun,” she said. “There’s a reason why states are banning ultraviolet radiation from artificial devices for kids 18 and younger.”

Research has shown that rates of indoor tanning by youths are lowest in states with the most restrictive policies, such as total bans of tanning by minors, as is the law in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota and 16 other states. Weaker policies, such as requirements for parental consent for minors to tan, have been found to be mostly ineffective at curbing youth tanning.

While indoor tanning can seem a lesser concern compared to some of the other challenges of the teenage years, it’s certainly not something to ignore. Like other risky behaviors, it can have an important and lasting impact on kids’ health for years to come. So, as parents or guardians or simply concerned adults, it’s important to make an effort to talk with teenagers about the risks of tanning beds, to support strong policies that curb teen tanning, and to model good behavior yourself by not tanning.

“It all comes down to education,” concludes Cornelius. “That, and protecting teenagers from the dangers of indoor tanning by putting good laws in place that restrict access, just like we do with cigarettes.”

It’s your kid’s health. Take control.

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Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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