The Dangers and Allure of Indoor Tanning for College Women

I was honored to have the opportunity to represent the American Academy of Dermatology during “The Hazards and Allure of Indoor Tanning Beds on College Campuses” event on Capitol Hill. The event was cohosted by Disruptive Women in Health Care and Congressional Families for Cancer Prevention of the Prevent Cancer Foundation and took place at the Rayburn House Office building in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2015. Along with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT), Congressman Charlie Dent (PA) and Dr. Sherry Pagoto from the University of Massachusetts, the importance of educating young women (and parents) about the dangers of indoor tanning was discussed.

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, making indoor tanning and skin cancer prevention extremely important issues. Melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer – is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25 to 29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for adolescents and young adults 15 to 29 years old. Melanoma is increasing faster in females 15 to 29 years old than males of the same age group.

The association with indoor tanning beds is clear. The risk of developing melanoma is 74% higher for those who have used indoor tanning at some point in their life and the risk increases as use increases.  Each year in the U.S. nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer and the number of new skin cancers continues to rise. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than 419,000 of these skin cancers are linked to indoor tanning. As a dermatologist, I see the consequences of indoor tanning and have seen too many young people diagnosed with melanoma.

For years, the American Academy of Dermatology has been active on the federal and state level advocating for public health policy that protects Americans from the dangers of indoor tanning. We were pleased to support the FDA’s efforts two years ago to further restrict indoor tanning devices. Approximately 2.3 million teens tan indoors in the United States annually, which makes restricting teens’ access to indoor tanning critical to the prevention of skin cancer. The new restrictions provide a strong recommendation against the use of tanning beds by minors under the age of 18. They also reclassify sunlamps and tanning beds to risk Class II level devices (just like x-ray machines) and require labeling that clearly communicates the risk of skin cancer to all users. Unfortunately, only 11 states and the District of Columbia restrict indoor tanning for minors under the age of 18. Dr. Pagoto has even found that many colleges offer free tanning for students or allow students to use a campus cash-card (unbeknownst to parents) for tanning salon visits.

We must continue to raise awareness about the dangers of indoor tanning for all young adults who are vulnerable to the allure of tanned skin through images in the media and misinformation about the safety of indoor tanning. With easy access to tanning beds either on or very close to many college campuses, far too many college women are putting themselves at increased risk for skin cancer. Through education, parents and college students alike can make informed decisions about whether a temporary tan is worth a lifetime of increased risk for melanoma. Similar to the way the science eventually proved that cigarettes cause lung cancer, the science now decidedly shows that tanning beds cause skin cancer. And just as cigarette use is declining in young adults, raising awareness about the long-term dangers of indoor tanning-induced skin damage will hopefully help reverse the trend of rising skin cancer in young women.