By Debra Jaliman, MD
This weekend California became the first state to ban tanning salons for anyone under 18, the beginning of what I and every dermatologist I know hope will become a national trend. The new law will come into effect on New Year’s Day, 2012. Until then, while children under 14 are prohibited from tanning salons, minors between the ages of 15-17 can still get their skin ruined, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. And astonishingly, many parents do go with their child; some even see it as an opportunity for parent-and-child bonding, unbelievable as that may sound.
More than half the states now regulate tanning salon access for minors, to some degree or another, but regulation is not enough. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Dermatology, and even the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, have all called for outright banning of minors from tanning salons. The United States is behind other countries in this regard: Great Britain has already banned minors completely, and Brazil has prohibited the use of sunbeds, period. The Food and Drug Administration is reportedly considering an under-18 ban, but so far has failed to move, despite the repeated pleadings of physicians.
Skin cancer is a rising epidemic everywhere. Tanning salons use UVA rays, which unlike UVB rays, do not cause burns. But since they have longer wave lengths, they penetrate deeper into the skin, damaging collagen, skin pigmentation, and DNA in cells. This cell damage is a primary cause of skin cancer, both melanomas (the most deadly form) and non-melanomas. Every single exposure to a tanning bed increases the risk of skin cancer. However, according to several studies, the risk for melanoma is even greater for those under thirty, because their DNA is more susceptible.
According to a small study published Oct. 6 in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, tanning beds may be even riskier than researchers once thought. The UVA1 rays caused lesions called thymine dimers in the deeper basal layers of the skin. The deeper the lesion, the greater the risk of skin cancer. UVA rays also appear to harm the immune system, yet another reason why everybody, young or old, should stay away from tanning salons. There has been some interesting research showing that people become addicted to tanning, and that it produces similar changes in the brain as do other addictions, such as alcohol or smoking. Dermatologists call these patients “tanorexics,” unfortunate souls who are unable to stop frequenting tanning beds even after they’ve been diagnosed with melanomas.
I personally would like to see tanning salons made illegal everywhere. If that sounds too extreme, then how about raising the age of admittance to 21? After all, we don’t allow them into bars, so why should they be allowed to permanently ruin their skin before they’re old enough to know better?