Are The Health Risks Worth That Golden Tan?


More than one million people in American regularly use tanning beds.  What these people don’t understand is that the users of indoor tanning beds are 74% more likely to develop melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – than those who have never entered a tanning booth before. 

Prior to the 20th Century, having a tan was the mark of the working class.  The only e people who sported the deep dark golden brown skin tones were the ones who couldn’t afford otherwise.  It was fashionably desirable to have pale and delicate skin.  Unlike today, in which the reverse is most often the case, cosmetics were sold to lighten the skin or make it look more fair.

Tanning only began to become fashionable in the 1920’s.  Many attribute this change in popularity to the fashion stylist, Coco Chanel, who returned from vacationing in southern France with stunning bronze skin.  However, tanning didn’t become big business until the late 1970’s when tanning beds were first made publicly available.  Initially, tanning beds used large concentrations of ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB).  This type of radiation activated melanin levels in the skin to create a tan, but also caused significant sunburn as well.  Dermatologists began voicing out against tanning beds because of the UVB rays and so the tanning bed industry switched to tanning bed bulbs that used ultraviolet-A radiation.  At first, this was believed to be less harmful because it diminished the chance of getting sunburned.  Unfortunately, once research was able to explore this type of radiation, it was discovered that the UVA rays actually caused a greater increase in the development of melanoma. 

In addition to the impact of the type of rays that sun bed users are exposed to another significant risk indicator is the age at which people first start using the tanning beds.  Because of this increased risk, many states are considering restrictions on tanning bed usage for people under eighteen years of age. 

Early exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of developing melanoma before reaching thirty-five years of age by 75%.  A study sponsored by the Brown University School of Medicine identified that if an individual tanned for more than ten years athey doubled their chances of getting melanoma in comparison to people who never used tanning beds.  It is believed that in order to reach that amount of UVA exposure, individuals had to begin tanning before they were eighteen years old. 

An example of the devastating results of early exposure to UVA radiation can be found in the case of Maria Whitehead.  Whitehead, a standout field hockey player and later assistant field hockey coach at Duke University, tragically passed away at the age of twenty-five from skin cancer.  It is believed that a strong contributing factor to Whitehead’s cancer was her frequent use of tanning salons as a teenager.  It is currently estimated that one out of three teenage girls have used tanning salons. 

While the development of melanoma has been linked to both UVA and UVB type of radiation, it has been decided that UVA rays (the kind found in most tanning beds) has the greater association with the development of skin cancer.  UVA rays lead to changes in the melanocyte skin cells which are found in the bottom layer of epidermis.  At New Yrk University scientists examined the effects of UVA rays on both light and dark pigmented test subjects and determined that overexposure of UVA radiation caused damage in the skin cells that could not be repaired by the body.  Thus, continued prolonged exposure to the use of tanning beds leads to increased build up of skin damage at the melanocyte cell level.  This is what leads to melanoma.  The sooner an individual begins to expose themselves to UVA radiation through tanning beds, the greater the build up of damage as the radiation penetrates deep into the epidermis which reduces the elasticity of the the skin (a significant cause of premature aging of the skin) and melanoma.

Unfortunately, the use of tanning salons has proven to have addictive qualities as well.  Recent studies have proven that tanning bed users experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those people addicted to nicotine.  In a study conducted by the University of Albany, students were polled on their use of tanning beds.  Those pulled were provided questionnaires that traditionally were used to identify alcohol, drug, and cigarette addiction.  Based on these types of questions 33% of those polled were considered “tanning bed” addicts because of their behavior and attitudes toward tanning. 

Some supporters of tanning salons say that tanning is helpful because of the attainment of vitamin D.  Vitamin D helps to prevent some diseases such as colon cancer, high blood pressure and fibromyalgia.  Vitamin D is also found in UV radiation. However, vitamin  D can be more affectively absorbed through the body through dietary means of consumption such as fatty fish like salmon.  Others mistakenly claim that tanning beds are healthy because you won’t be as likely to develop a sunburn from them.  The visual effects of UVA rays may not be as apparent as compared to outright sun damage, but that is what makes it all the more dangerous. 

Restrictions on the use of tanning salons among teenagers needs to be enacted.  The dangers of tanning beds are not too dissimilar as to the addictive qualities of smoking that develop disease over a prolonged period of usage.  Melanoma is the most common form of skin cancer with more 3.5 million people being diagnosed yearly.  There are more new cases of skin cancer each year than the combined number of breast, prostrate, and lung cancer.  In the last thirty-one yeas, more people have developed skin cancer all of the other skin cancers combined.  Melanoma is a silent epidemic.  With greater awareness, we can fight the effects of skin cancer.  It is time that we make teenagers aware of the deadly consequences of tanning bed exposure as we do of the dangers of smoking.  Isn’t it time that we go back to an age when we celebrate the pale light skinned beauties of a previous century?