Ten Latest Health Reasons To Swear Off Tanning Salons

(Alexis O’Toole on Wikimedia Commons)

Summers, Glenna Kohl worked as a sun-drenched lifeguard in her Cape Cod hometown of Barnstable. Winters, she developed a feel-good habit of going to tanning salons. “It was kind of a guilty thing, like having an ice cream,” said her father, Robert Kohl.

At age 22, Glenna was diagnosed with advanced melanoma, and though she braved all possible treatments, she died three years later.

Glenna Kohl died of melanoma in 2008

Glenna was athletic, vegetarian and deeply interested in health, but there was a lot she didn’t know a decade ago as she deepened her tan — because she couldn’t. There were studies that had not yet been conducted, official health pronouncements not yet made, public messaging not yet spread. Everyone knew indoor tanning could take a toll on your skin just like the sun — but not exactly how great a risk it posed. People knew to avoid sunburn, but tanning beds could be controlled, right?

Glenna could not prove that it was indoor tanning rather than outdoor sun that caused her melanoma, said Robert Kohl, who now helps run the Glenna Kohl Fund For Hope. But he thinks that if today’s overwhelming body of evidence on indoor tanning had been out there back then, “it might have been enough to keep her out of there. It probably would have. She was a smart girl and she wouldn’t have taken it lightly.”

Over the last few years, study after study has established and calculated the health risks of indoor tanning, to the point that California and Vermont have recently banned it for people under 18, and New York for those under 17. (Massachusetts has enacted no such ban, despite multiple efforts, and the legislature failed to pass a more limited ban in its last session.)

Just this week, an overview of previous studies, published in the medical journal BMJ, estimated that in the United States, indoor tanning leads to more than 170,000 cases a year of two increasingly common non-melanoma types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. The younger you are when you tan, it noted, the higher your risk.

‘We’re not anywhere near the beginning of the tipping point of the epidemic.’

I asked Alan Geller of the Harvard School of Public Health, a leading researcher on the epidemiology of skin cancer, to sum up what we know now that we didn’t know then. Here’s what I found his most disturbing statistic:

“Most projections will say that about 40 uses [of a tanning bed] during one’s lifetime elevates one’s risk of melanoma about 55%,” he said. “So if you do the math, it means basically a 1-1/2 % extra risk for melanoma for each time you use it.”

Just to put that in perspective: An American’s overall risk of getting melanoma is about 1 percent, or 1 in 100. So adding one and a half percent of that to it is far from a guaranteed death sentence. But there it is, a number you can hang your hat on when you wonder, “Is this worth it?”

And for the bigger picture, you have to multiply that added risk by tens of millions of people, mainly young women. An estimated 30 million Americans tan indoors. Geller says that for him, some of the most concerning numbers came out just recently, from a national survey on the popularity of indoor tanning.

Published by the CDC this May, it found that in 2010, nearly one-third of young white women used indoor tanning. (Other research has found that 15 percent of 15-year-old girls use tanning beds, and more than double that by 17.)

Such numbers quash any hope that young people’s interest in indoor tanning may be fading, Geller said.

“The number of cases of melanoma and other types of skin cancer related to tanning bed use is already far too high,” he said. “But we’re not anywhere near the beginning of the tipping point of the epidemic based on how many young people are currently using tanning beds and, disturbingly, how frequently they do so.”

Let’s sum up ten points that may eventually help tip that balance. The first you’ve just heard:

1. Added melanoma risk per session: 1.5%

And the extra risk adds up. If you start before age 30, your melanoma risk goes up by 75%.

2. Tanorexic, tanaholic, call it what you will…

…but it’s clear that a great many indoor tanners feel the need to do it often. It is another of Geller’s greatest concerns, he said, that the recent survey found so much frequent use of tanning beds. White women who tan indoors do it an average of 20 sessions a year.

Why might that be? Appearance aside, UV or ultraviolet light gives pleasure, to the point that it can be addictive. Dr. Mary Brady of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center writes in a recent cancer journal article:

Recent studies provide a fascinating potential explanation for the growth of the tanning bed industry despite the known health risk of excessive UV exposure. It appears that UV radiation has positive, and potentially addictive effects, on mood. In a small but intriguing study by Feldman et al, young adults blinded to the difference chose tanning beds with UV as opposed to beds with the exact conditions but absent the UV radiation. Indoor tanning has been associated with relaxation and endorphin release. These additional positive effects can lead to addictive behavior in tanning bed users and may explain the increasing popularity of tanning salons despite the common-sense awareness of the damaging effects of UV radiation on the skin.

3. Daunting melanoma statistics

From the Melanoma Foundation of New England:

Melanoma rates are increasing faster than nearly all other cancers with an epidemic growth rate of 3% annually.

In 2012, an estimated 76,250 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed, with approximately 9100 deaths yearly from the malignant melanoma and another 3000 deaths from non melanoma skin cancers.

More than one person dies every hour from melanoma.

4. Even higher risk of other skin cancers

In a major study of more than 70,000 women over 20 years, researchers reported earlier this year that indoor tanning significantly increased the risk not just of melanoma but of two other skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. They are not as deadly as melanoma but far more common.

Similarly, another recent study found that patients who used tanning beds were at a 69% higher risk for early-onset basal cell carcinoma.

5. The World Health Organization says ‘carcinogen’

In 2009, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer shifted the definition for indoor tanning devices from “probable” carcinogen to its highest risk level, ‘Carcinogenic to humans,” putting them in the same class as tobacco and asbestos.

6. It’s not just cancer doctors who oppose it.

Just about any medical group you can name is against indoor tanning, and U.S. health authorities also offer a chorus of warnings about the risks of indoor tanning. President Obama’s health care overhaul adds a 10% tax on indoor tanning.

The FDA, which is considering tighter regulations, points out here that your ‘healthy glow” is actually a sign of skin damage, and that risks include not just cancer but premature aging, immune suppression, allergies and eye damage.

And the CDC not only warns of such risks, it also knocks down positive “myths” about indoor tanning:

“Tanning indoors is safer than tanning in the sun.”

Indoor tanning and tanning outside are both dangerous. Although tanning beds operate on a timer, the exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can vary based on the age and type of light bulbs. You can still get a burn from tanning indoors, and even a tan indicates damage to your skin.

“I can use a tanning bed to get a base tan, which will protect me from getting a sunburn.”

A tan is a response to injury: skin cells respond to damage from UV rays by producing more pigment. The best way to protect your skin from the sun is by using these tips for skin cancer prevention.

“Indoor tanning is a safe way to get vitamin D, which prevents many health problems.”

Vitamin D is important for bone health, but studies showing links between vitamin D and other health conditions are inconsistent. Although it is important to get enough vitamin D, the safest way is through diet or supplements. Tanning harms your skin, and the amount of time spent tanning to get enough vitamin D varies from person to person.

7. ‘Worse than a sunny beach at midday’

Dr. Brady writes in her essay, “Public Health and the Tanning Bed Controversy:

Evidence that tanning beds emit levels of radiation above those normally experienced in midday on a sunny beach is particularly disconcerting. Gerber et al measured the biologic activity of the UV output of conventional tanning beds and determined that the erythema-effective irradiance was equivalent to or exceeded the emission of the midday sun in southern Europe.

Researchers have equated one half-hour of tanning bed use with many hours of beach exposure.

In fact, research suggests that the doses of Type A ultraviolet light emitted by high-pressure tanning units may be as much as 10 to 15 times higher than that of the midday sun, an intense exposure not repeated in nature, Geller said. Researchers have equated one half-hour of tanning bed use with many hours of beach exposure, he said.

8. Costs add up

Dr. Brady also points out that basal cell carcinoma is the most common cancer diagnosis in the United States, and can involve facial surgery. “As we face a future of increasing scarcity of health care dollars and an aging population,” she writes, it makes sense to reduce the costs of treating the most common cancer.

9. Ugliness and irony

Glenna Kohl’s father, Robert, sees great irony in the tanning industry’s efforts to appeal to young girls who want to enhance their looks. “It’s not only about melanoma and the risk of cancer,” he said, “you also turn your skin to leather and get wrinkles earlier, and sunspots. You’d think the people who are all about looking good would be smart enough to say, ‘Wait a minute, what’s this going to do to me later?’ But kids don’t think down the road.”

‘Dying is not a good risk to take.’

“Dying is not a good risk to take,” he said. If he were speaking to a girl who was considering a tanning session, he said, “I’d stress the fact that I’ve seen it first-hand. And not only was my daughter sick for three years, but because of all the treatments she went through, the suffering was unbearable, to try to endure and cure herself.”

“I would say, ‘Girls, don’t be stupid.’”

10. If you happen to be reading this in New England

According to the Melanoma Foundation of New England, the region has a higher-than-average rate of melanoma.

(By the way, with this robust body of evidence, why has Massachusetts not passed an under-18 ban like Vermont and California? It’s not for lack of trying; backers of a ban have repeatedly introduced a bill into the legislature, and it has repeatedly stalled. I asked Robert Kohl why he thought that was, and he answered simply: “It’s big money. It’s a $5-billion industry.”)

Oh, yes, and the ultimate reason to walk on by the tanning salon, possible more powerful than all the others: The visuals of the New Jersey tanning mom.


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  • Calico Roni Rosenberg

    i am another one who is going to go pro-uv, in moderation. i could list a TON of reasons, but i will just state one of my favorites as quickly as i ca nto save us both some time.

    if you look at cancer distribution in the US, there is a direct positve correlation with melanoma and UV, however, there is an inverse correlation with pretty much every other type of cancer, which are SIGNIFICANTLY more likely to result in death, and occur a ridiculous amount more often. also, catching skin cancer before it is dangerous and treating it (as the vast majority of cases are) highly reduces your risk of of getting any other cancer in the future.

  • StevenA

    25 years ago the cosmetic companies began warning us to stay out of the sun and to use chemical sunscreen 365 days of the year, even in northern climates. 25 years later skin cancer, melanoma and certain internal cancers have all increased….as well as the profits of the sunscreen companies. I will take my chances with the sun and an occasional sun bed. My skin,my health, my Vitamin D levels…. my choice. After 60 years on this planet I’ve earned the right. We are being bamboozled!

  • not buying it

    I dont think that we can say just by going into a tanning bed caused her to have that skin cancer. There are children or babies born that have never had sun exposure that have died from skin cancer… its terrible thing but skin cancer happended before tanning beds and will continue even if tanning beds are banned…. some people are just pre desposed…. I have a good friend that ate healthy didnt drink or smoke, Ran everyday, lived a very healthy life… had regular physicals… and he died of a Massive heart attack. also knew someone that never smoked never around smokers…. but had lung cancer and died….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707714612 Steven Cremonni

    The Natural Mom Blog
    Thursday, October 4, 201210/4/2012

    Good evening everyone! Tonight I’m writing about something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time now. These last couple of days, heck who am I kidding, the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of these articles about how tanning beds are so bad for you and how you can get skin cancer and how it should be banned for anyone under 18 years old. It really hits a soft spot for me because, first of all, exposing yourself to the sun (without sun screen) or going into a tanning bed as an alternative since many people work during the prime hours to get your vitamin D, or maybe because the weather permits 3-9 months out of the year is OK in moderation. It seems that people don’t understand that. Everyone feels the need to slather on sunscreen and cover up at all times and wouldn’t dare step foot into a tanning bed because they read some article somewhere or heard about a friend of a friend who had a scare with skin cancer.

    My biggest issue with this is most people have not done their own research and they are truly hurting themselves because of this. The sun and a tanning bed are your two best sources of vitamin D and the great thing is you could be preventing and curing over 100 different diseases and cancers just by having an adequate vitamin D level. It sounds so simple, but to put it in perspective, more than 90% of the population is vitamin D deficient. It wasn’t always like this… deficiency increased greatly just about the time sunscreen use really started to take off. The even crazier part about this is when sunscreens started booming, so did skin cancer. What kills me is nobody realizes this or cares to even look into it because they had a doctor or a TV show to stay out of the sun or read some article that says how it causes cancer. WRONG! God made the sun, we need the sun to live, as do many other things, including, animals and plants. Yes, too much can be overkill but like I said, moderation people!

    The reason why this all sort of hits a soft spot with me is because, like I said previously, I recently had a beautiful baby boy. For the Government to tell me that my child can’t tan before the age of 18 would really upset me. I’m not saying I would let me child just go whenever he wants, but once he gets old enough and we decide to go on vacation to somewhere warmer or summer is coming, I would rather have his skin somewhat prepared with a base tan rather than just throw him out there all pale with a bunch of chemicals on his skin. What if he has bad acne? I’d rather him treat it by drying it out from the sun or in a tanning bed a few minutes a week instead of him digesting some sort of pill or a topical cream that will make his skin extremely sensitive to light. This is what the world has come to, everything is cured with a pill or a cream. You’re telling me you’re OK with ingesting all these things with this list of side effects that are 5 pages long, but you’re so against getting a little bit of sun a couple times a week or using a tanning bed moderately.

    Anyway, to finally get to my story…I recently ran in the warrior dash in Michigan — it was awesome! My dad and I ran it together while my mom watched my son. It was in the 60s that day and sunny, but not a high UV index. As we were out there, everyone seemed to have some sort of opinion or felt they needed to check with us to see if we put sunscreen on him and ask “where is his hat?” I ignored the first few people, then I finally had it. Someone else asked me if he had sunscreen on….NOPE! He sure doesn’t. Anyone who feels the need to put sunscreen on an infant is a nut job for one, and for two, mind your own business. We had his sun shade on him on his stroller and yes, at times the sun was on him but, to me, that is perfectly OK. A couple minutes here and there isn’t going to hurt him, if anything, it’s helping him. That’s the problem with this world today…how dare you tell me that my kid needs sunscreen. Do your research before you start putting these sunscreens on your children. There were stories not too long ago about how sunscreen chemicals are killing the great barrier reef and altering the sex of fish….and you’re telling me it’s OK to put on my baby boy…You must’ve lost your mind. Like I said before, moderation is key. I know an infant’s skin is much more sensitive — that’s what you definitely limit the time, it’s better to let him get a little rather than none at all. I’m proud to say that I will not use sunscreen on my child unless it is absolutely positively my only option. They now make clothing that protects you: hats, shade…the alternatives are endless.

    So, on that note, please do your own research before you share what you read in an article or saw on TV or heard from a friend of a friend! You could be doing yourself and your family a huge favor and will be thankful later on!

    Posted by Lauren B. at 6:32 PM No comments:Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to FacebookTuesday, September 25, 2012

    • StevenA

      love this girl!

  • jajrdh

    And….when are the lawsuits going to start??

  • Marty

    Given all the overwhelming scientific data, why is Rep. O’Day (D-Worcester) holding up the passage of S.2211 that would save the lives of Massachusetts teenagers by banning tanning salons for anyone under 16 years of age?

  • Deb

    The Melanoma Foundation New England has been working to pass regulations on tanning beds for the last several years. There is currently a bill waiting to be released for a vote from the house. Please let Rep James O’Day know that you care about the health of our teens and to release this bill for a vote

  • Jacqueline Tourville

    What worries me is that I have heard more and more women using the excuse/rationale that tanning beds boost their vitamin D during the winter and that’s why they’re doing it. The best way to make it through winter in New England with vitamin D levels intact is to get tested and then supplement with fish oil or a vitamin D supp and eat more vitamin D rich foods. Here’s the scoop on tanning beds and vitamin D: http://www.womentowomen.com/healthynutrition/vitamindandtanningbeds.aspx

    - Jacqueline, Women to Women contributor

  • Mary Percak-Dennett

    As an owner of a tanning salon it is my responsibility to train my staff and clients on the importance of skin care. Every person is evaluated on their skin tone, age, genetic background, and condition of skin to determing how long they will tan for. We go baby steps so that no one burns. Our clients are taught the importance of maintaining good skin care: drinking water, moisturizing and using sun screen. Education is the key to making smart decisions, and being responsible for your actions. I would recommend looking at the following sites for further information; http://www.tanningtruth.com and http://www.smarttan.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/The.MacTavish Anthony Cunningham

      With all due respect (I understand folks have to make a living, and if your investment is sunk in a tanning salon, you can’t simply switch to selling apples), your links are hardly impartial perspectives. Yes, some people may benefit from tanning beds for Seasonal Affective Disorder and such. But medical researchers who are documenting the explosion of skin cancers are not pushing a product, and they are quite clear about the really serious dangers of unprotected exposure to the sun. Unless your tanning salon is some kind of medical facility, your implied claims about client evaluations sound a bit overblown. What training do they have? Unless your clients are wearing sunscreen WHILE they are using the tanning beds, your “education” isn’t very smart, even if it is profitable.

      • not buying it

        DO YOU KNOW HOW Many BILLIONS of dollars the pharmacticual companies make from pushing all there creams and potions…. BE AFRAID,,, VERY AFAID! not to metion do you know how toxic sunscreen is and they want us to use it several times a day all over our body… I live in northern climit no reason to wear it daily!!! or all over my body… now who is selling something we dont need or is un healthy…also all this reasearch is not showing the whole truths… you have to read between the lines. are they testing Blonde hair blue eye, skin type 1 people who should have limited sun exposure. or are thye testing Dark hair, dark eyed people. and what prior exposure have they had… we all know they make it look like what ever they want.

  • running_dog

    Jeopardize a $5 billion industry that employs over 100,000 Americans? These doctors and scientists must be socialists trying to ruin our economy.

    • Mark900

      Yeah, that’s it! It’s a diabolical plot, by all the doctors and scientists. The socialist doctors and scientists, I mean. But what would really spark up the economy is if we could get rid of those pesky Surgeon General’s warnings on cigarettes. Maybe put cigarette machines in high schools. Tobacco brings in WAY more jobs and tax dollars than do tanning salons. Plus it’s part of our history and culture. Oh wait, running_dog was just trolling, wasn’t he? Yeah, ‘cuz no one could be that stupid without such conscious effort.

  • tim

    When I was a kid if you were tan it meant either it was summer and school was out and we were all playing outside or it meant that you went somewhere warm on winter break with your family. The tan went away in a couple weeks. I don’t *get* the whole thing about tanning but I’m also a guy who thinks non-tanned women who don’t use a lot of make up are hot so what do I know?

  • Bill

    My wife was 42 years-old when she died from metastatic melanoma. She tanned a couple of times of month, well within what is considered a safe exposure. I miss her as much today as when our sons and I laid her rest.

    • http://www.facebook.com/The.MacTavish Anthony Cunningham

      Sorry for your loss. I hope tanning beds quickly disappear so nobody else has to wonder whether a mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter was lost on account of them.

      • not buying it

        So you think by banning tanning beds…. no one will have to die of skin cancer,,,, really so lets ban the sun too! how about be more realistic.

    • jajrdh

      I lost my husband of 30 years to Metastatic Melanoma three months ago. He wasn’t a tanner but grew up on a lake and spent his youth constantly outside with no shirt on. This cancer is no joke and incurable at Stage IV. Wear sunscreen!!

  • haans42

    As with anything, excessive use causes problems. Articles like this always look at the extreme cases. The fact is, that in northern latitudes, during the winter months, 15 to 20 minutes of use per week are excellent sources of vitamin D, and can help ward off seasonal effective disorder, and can indeed be highly beneficial. This is especially true for people with darker skin color.

    Perhaps we should look at this as a behavioral problem like anorexia, and not as a problem with a product? Any product can be abused. We don’t blame cars or mobile phones when young people kill themselves by driving distracted. The same logic must apply Let’s recognize the abuse and correct it, rather than blaming the product.

    • not buying it

      I completly agree…. I have several friends that are doctors or nurses… guess what they are in favor of moderate exposure to UV rays, natural or man made…
      and DOC OZ said it on national tv as well KEY WORD MODERATE!!!

  • roger perrone

    Tanning beds are all about beauty, right? Face it, any positive health claims that are made are just cover, so a new direction of attack is called for.

    When cigarettes were still being advertised on TV, an anti-smoking campaign produced TV spot featuring Brooke Shields in which she said kissing a boy who smokes is like kissing an ash tray, and then she made a face like she had just eaten a slug. One of the reasons that the tobacco companies went along with the TV advertising ban was because that PSA spot was so effective and they were afraid of a campaign that appealed to kids’ vanity. So maybe that approach is what us needed here.

    So forget the health warnings – kids think they are going to live forever anyway. Perhaps a campaign that asks, with the appropriate visuals, “Is it really beautiful to have skin like a 50 year old when you are only 25?” might make a change in behaviour.

  • Trena

    Vanity. Insanity.