Tanning bed use remains popular among Americans, a new study shows, despite reported links to an increased risk of skin cancer and the availability of safe “spray-on” tans. In fact, about one in every five women and more than 6 percent of men say they use indoor tanning, University of Minnesota researchers report.
“Tanning is common, particularly among young women,” said study author Kelvin Choi, a research associate from the university’s School of Public Health. “The use of tanning is actually higher than smoking.”
“People tan for aesthetic reasons,” said Dr. Cheryl Karcher, a dermatologist and educational spokeswoman for The Skin Cancer Foundation. “A lot of people feel they look better with a little bit of color. Eventually, people will realize that the skin you were born with is the skin that looks best on you.”
Karcher noted that there is no safe level of tanning. “Ultraviolet light damages the DNA of cells and makes cancer,” she said. “People should absolutely avoid indoor tanning. There is absolutely no reason for it. In the long run, it’s really harmful.”
Yet, many seem unaware of the risk for skin cancer linked to tanning beds and don’t consider avoiding them as a way to reduce their risk of skin cancer, the researchers noted.
That’s unfortunate, Choi said, because “the popularity of indoor tanning among young women may contribute to the recent increase of melanoma in women under 40.”
The report is published in the December issue of the Archives of Dermatology.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2009 there were about 1 million new cases of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer and about 8,650 Americans died from melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Numerous studies have linked indoor tanning to a heightened risk of skin cancer, including one study published in May that found that tanning bed use boosts the odds for melanoma. Early this year, an advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also recommended a ban on the use of tanning beds by people under the age of 18.
For the new study, Choi and colleagues collected data on almost 2,900 people who took part in the 2005 Health Information National Trends study. In addition, 821 of these people were asked about what they knew about preventing skin cancer.
Overall, about 18 percent of women and 6.3 percent of men reported using tanning beds in the past year.
Many of those who use tanning beds are young, Choi said. “About 36 percent of women and 12 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 24 reported tanning indoors in the past year,” he said.
Among women who used tanning beds, most lived in the Midwest or South. Many also used commercial spray-on tans. Choi noted that spray tans are not typically being used as a substitute for tanning beds — instead, many people use both.
Women who did not tan tended to be older, had less education, had lower incomes and regularly used sunscreen, the researchers found. Men who did not use tanning beds tended to be older and obese. Men were more likely to use tanning beds if they used spray tans and lived in urban areas, the researchers note.
So why is indoor tanning still popular, even as knowledge of the risks increases? Some research has suggested that people can become addicted to tanning, and Choi believes that “there may be addictive potential to indoor tanning — [people] called ‘tanorexics.'”
The study also found that when it came to beliefs about preventing skin cancer, avoiding indoor tanning didn’t seem to be on most people’s radar. For example, just 13 percent of women and 4 percent of men said the devices should be avoided to cut cancer risk. Instead, most people pointed to sunscreen, avoiding sun exposure and wearing a hat as the best ways to prevent the disease, Choi’s group found. Only about 6 percent of both women and men thought they should be screened for skin cancer, the researchers noted.
The bottom line, according to the study authors, is that despite the known risks, “the indoor tanning industry is still growing rapidly, generating more than $5 billion in annual revenues, and has attracted more than 30 million patrons, primarily women.”
“People may be confused by the information on the possible benefits of indoor tanning,” Choi said. He pointed to recent media coverage of studies suggesting the need for more vitamin D — produced by the activity of sunlight on skin — as perhaps furthering the (erroneous) notion that tanning is somehow good for you.
One representative of the indoor tanning industry took issue with the new study. John Overstreet, a spokesman for the Indoor Tanning Association, said that “the study design and conclusions strongly suggest that the authors started with a preexisting bias against indoor tanning.”
“This is just another study that presupposes there are only risks, when in fact there are many benefits to exposure to UV light, whether from the sun or a sunbed but especially in the controlled setting of an indoor tanning salon,” he said.
For more information on skin cancer, visit the Skin Cancer Foundation.