Teens and tanning: It’s time to put tanning beds to rest

Ever since my mother had several bouts of skin cancer while I was in high school, I’ve been cautious when it comes to UV ray exposure. I appreciate and protect my fair complexion knowing that I have a predisposition for cancer. However, this wasn’t easy to do as a teen.

I remember my first experience at a tanning bed. I was 18 years old and a tanning salon was offering a free week of tanning for members who brought someone along. My friend encouraged me to get a “base tan” before summer so I wouldn’t burn as badly, and she promised that I would leave with a “healthy” glow. I wanted that temporarily beautiful bronze skin, even if it meant paying the price with cancer treatments later in life. Even though I had seen the gruesome effects that tanning beds had had on my mother, I joined my friend for just 10 minutes of direct UV exposure — 10 minutes that increased my risk of developing melanoma by 20 percent.

That’s right! According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “Just one indoor UV tanning session increases users’ chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent, and each additional session during the same year boosts the risk almost another 2 percent.”

The foundation also notes that those who use tanning beds before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by nearly 75 percent!

It’s so easy for young adults and teens to fall into the beauty trap of tanning beds, especially when they hear phrases like “healthy glow” and “base tan.” Tanning beds seem harmless, but the effects can be brutal. Even those who know the dangers of tanning can be enticed by discounted prices, promises and peer pressure.

People who live in colder, cloudier climates may see tanning beds as a quick solution for getting year-round color. Unfortunately, this concept of beauty comes at a major cost. Your risk for cancer increases significantly whether you visit a tanning salon once in your lifetime or once a week.

If these statistics seem overwhelming, you may be even more shocked by the results of a study published in JAMA Dermatology, a medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

“Worldwide, there are more skin cancer cases due to indoor tanning than there are lung cancer cases due to smoking,” according to the study.

Just as you encourage your children and preteens not to smoke, you should also advise avoiding tanning beds and tanning. The earlier you have the conversation, the better.

Encourage your teen to avoid tanning altogether, whether at a salon or outdoors. Both are dangerous, and cancer doesn’t care how you are exposed to harmful UV rays. Usually the sun is a better bet, so long as you follow a few sun safety practices. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, wear a hat and appropriate clothing that covers your skin, and avoid direct sunlight during peak hours, usually in the early afternoon.

But even wearing sunscreen does not guarantee your child will never get skin cancer. The most effective thing you can do to help your child avoid melanoma, basil cell carcinoma and other forms of skin cancer is to change the “beauty factor.” Help teens let go of the idea that fair-skinned means pale and unhealthy and that they have to be tan to be attractive.

Second, alert them to the long-term dangers of teenage tanning. Many teens don’t recognize how severe skin cancer can be. Chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, biological drug treatments, immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy can all be used to treat melanoma and other types of skin cancer. Tell them how their actions now increase their risk later. Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.

Skin cancer is a serious, life-threatening disease that can be prevented by avoiding tanning beds and protecting your skin in the sun.

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