Let me be the first dermatologist in America to thank Patricia Krentcil, aka "Tanning Mom." Thanks to her recent run-in with the law and her unnaturally bronze hue, the country is having an important discussion about the health dangers of indoor tanning.
Krentcil, the New Jersey mother accused of taking her 5-year-old daughter inside a tanning booth in April, introduced most Americans to the word "tanorexia." Just as anorexics think they still need to lose weight, tanorexics never think their skin is dark enough. Krentcil reportedly went to a tanning salon five times a week in order to maintain her brown skin tone.
Few people take tanning to Krentcil's extremes. In my 44 years as a dermatologist, I've probably only seen a couple of patients who qualified as tanorexics. But you don't have to be addicted to tanning to get skin cancer. A single blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person's chances of developing melanoma later in life, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.
Research has shown a startling increase in skin cancer rates, especially among young adults.
A recent study by the Mayo Clinic looked at first-time diagnoses of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, in patients ages 18-39 in Olmsted County, Minn. over a 40-year period. The study found that from 1970 to 2009, the incidence of melanoma in Olmsted increased eightfold among young women, and fourfold among young men. The authors of the study suggested a possible reason for the increase, particularly among women, was the use of tanning beds.
This certainly makes sense. The popularity of indoor tanning has grown exponentially over the past few decades. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly 28 million people tan indoors in the United States each year.
What makes tanning beds a potential health hazard? The same thing that makes sitting out in the sun too long risky — ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The World Health Organization has classified UV radiation as carcinogenic.
People may be wondering whether lounging in a tanning booth is any more dangerous than sitting out in the sun. Well, let me put it this way: either way you're cooking cancer. The difference is perhaps a matter of public education. Most people know getting sunburned at the beach is bad. However, I don't think the public is as well-informed of the dangers of indoor tanning.
Numerous studies show that using a tanning bed before the age of 35 increases a person's risk of melanoma by 75 percent. This is why it's so important to keep young people out of tanning salons. Many states now prohibit children under the age of 18 from using tanning booths (California's law just went into effect this year) and more legislation may be on its way because of Tanning Mom, who, incidentally, denies taking her kid into tanning booth and has pleaded not guilty to child endangerment.
Skin cancer isn't the only risk posed by tanning booths. Indoor tanning can also cause immunity suppression, premature aging and eye damage, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
There are, of course, health benefits of sunlight and UV rays such as Vitamin D. But you can buy Vitamin D at a drug store, not to mention tanning sprays — both of which are safe alternatives to going to the salon like Tanning Mom.
Dr. Paige is a dermatologist for Contra Costa Health Services at the Martinez and Pittsburg Health Centers.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.