Tanning bedIn Washington, we’re nearing the end of our summer and with winter comes days of grey skies and few glimpses of sun. Indoor tanning salons are so popular here they are in nearly every plaza mall you drive past and from what I can see, they seem to be a hot spot for teen girls. It turns out my observations aren’t that far off. A new study in JAMA found that about a third non-Hispanic White teenage girls and young women are regular patrons of tanning salons and the media has picked up on this as well. While we all enjoy a sunny day or walk on the beach in the summer, having ongoing exposure to UV light isn’t as harmless as it seems.

Sunlight has many benefits, it helps us generate vitamin D, it keeps temperatures warm and comfortable, it helps flowers bloom. But too much sun exposure for anyone can lead to painful sunburns and over decades can cause cancerous changes that can be deadly. A friend of mine is young (in her late 40’s) and has already had 2 cancerous lesions removed! Over 9,000 people die each year from skin cancer in the US.  The UV light in tanning beds is just as dangerous as the UV light from the star our planet orbits. Unfortunately, there isn’t a known or agreed upon ‘healthy’ amount of tanning. Because of the dangers, 5 states have actually banned indoor tanning for minors and more than half of all states limit access to those under 18.

Why does this matter for teens? After all, one of our cultural ideals of beauty is to have a ‘healthy’ glow. When someone comes back from vacation with bronze color and sun-streaked highlights in their hair, they are complimented on how great they look. Why wouldn’t a teen want to look this way all of the time?

The trouble is that teens are notoriously bad at thinking about future consequences. Their brain isn’t finished developing, and biologically, they just aren’t programmed to consider how behaviors now can have health implications 20 to 30 years in the future. This means that when offered the chance to go tanning for 15 minutes they’re not going to think of the real risk of basal cell carcinoma or malignant melanoma. Parents and friends may not think much of their teen going to the tanning salon either because this is a quiet activity that doesn’t involve other risks like alcohol, drugs, parties, or sex.

So what things should parents consider if their teen asks to go tanning?

  1. Rates of skin cancer in young people are rising. Though it takes time to develop cancer, ongoing exposure to sunlight and UV light sources puts people at risk for something preventable.
  2. Sunburn with blistering and over exposure to UV light during childhood put people at higher risk for skin cancer.
  3. Is it legal in your state if your teen is under 18? The National Conference of State Legislation has a great map to show the laws in your state. (Washington State doesn’t have any restrictions on tanning.

Do readers have opinions on indoor tanning for teens? Please let us know your thoughts!