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Tanning turmoil: Why getting ‘bronzed’ is hazardous to teen health

Gigi Chawla, MD
Gigi Chawla, MD

Gigi Chawla, MD

Every spring, many of us weary from a long winter head south to warmer climes; teens across the country attend prom with their sweethearts. And what do kids tend to do before events like these?

Hit the tanning salon.

Looking “pasty white” in a swimsuit or a new dress just won’t do, right? Think again.

Here’s a brief warning to help dispel the myth of “getting a base tan” before these events. Or ever.

Thirty-five percent of 17-year-old girls in the U.S. are using tanning beds and 55 percent of college-aged kids have used one at least once. What isn’t immediately clear to our kids is that during a tanning-bed session they may receive up to 12 times the ultraviolet (UV) exposure as they receive being outside in the natural sunlight. This UV-radiation exposure from tanning beds is dangerous and linked to three types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Here’s the potential damage that one tanning-bed session can cause a teen:

  • The risk of developing melanoma increases by 20 percent.
  • The risk of developing basal cell carcinoma increases by 29 percent.
  • The risk of squamous cell carcinoma increases by 67 percent.

For people younger than 35 using a tanning bed, the lifetime risk of developing skin cancer of any type increases by 74 percent.

Specifically, it increases the lifetime risk of:

  • Melanoma by 75 percent
  • Basal cell carcinoma by 150 percent
  • Squamous cell carcinoma by a whopping 250 percent

Skin cancer is the leading form of cancer in 25- to 29-year-olds.

Another startling fact: More skin cancer cases arise from tanning-bed use than lung cancer cases do from smoking; yet, in our culture, bronzed skin is seen as a form of beauty.

Some advice to parents: Remember to reinforce to your teens that they are beautiful or handsome no matter the shade of their skin. What’s important is what’s inside. I like to think that we live in an era in which we can look past skin color, where we are not judged by skin color and we should not see beauty based on skin color.

It’s time to remind your kids to “go with your own natural glow.”

Gigi Chawla, MD, is senior medical director of primary care at Children’s Minnesota.

Sources: The Skin Cancer Foundation, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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