By Debra Jaliman, MD
For the past couple of weeks, the local newspapers have been covering the case of Patricia Krentcil, a New Jersey mother who was arrested April 24 after allegedly taking her five-year-old daughter with her to a tanning salon. The next day the child went to school with burns so severe, her kindergarten teacher reported the case to the authorities.
Krentcil denies the charges and insists the child got sunburned at an outing. But she cheerfully admits to going to tanning salons 20 times a month — and it shows in her face. The photos in the newspapers are downright scary. Her face is an eerie dark orange, and the obvious sun damage is so bad she looks at least a couple of decades older than her real age.
Krentcil is an avowed “tanorexic,” a person who has become addicted to tanning. It’s not a made-up addiction — MRI studies have shown that tanning beds can stimulate the same receptors in the brain that respond to cocaine and other drugs, according to an August, 2011 article in the Journal of Addiction Biology. The problem with this addiction is that it is still legal, and anybody who has the money can go to a tanning salon and bake their skin.
More and more states have passed legislation regulating access to tanning salons for minors. Several states bar salons from admitting anybody under age 18. New Jersey isn’t one of them; it bans minors under 14, but allows teenagers 15-17 to use tanning beds if they have written permission from their parents. Teenagers, unfortunately, are some of the most enthusiastic patrons of tanning salons, and the tanning industry has resisted efforts to make the nation-wide minimum age for admission 21 or even 18.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) came out this week with an alarming study on how young people continue to court sun damage. According to the CDC, around half of the nation’s young people, aged 18-29, reported having at least one bad sunburn in the past 12 months, whether from outdoor activities or tanning salons. Meanwhile, the incidence of skin cancer continues to rise.
Parents who willfully and knowingly place a small child in a tanning bed should be criminally charged, in my view. It doesn’t just border on child abuse, it is child abuse. In my practice, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: a growing number of children and teenagers with skin cancers. How any parent can take a child to a tanning salon is beyond me. But then, as I’ve said before, I think tanning salons should be made illegal.