Throughout history, humans have gone to great lengths to be attractive as defined by the standards of their time. People gain weight, lose weight, shave, wear uncomfortable shoes or clothes, and spend lots of bucks on makeup and hair care. Some even risk death – or it would seem so, given the sobering facts about tanning and skin cancer.
The World Health Organization has identified tanning beds and the ultraviolet radiation they produce as definite causes of cancer. Yet 30 million Americans still choose to visit indoor tanning salons every year, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Why tan at all?
Some of those tanning fans sit in classrooms at Fairmont High School. Teens hit the tanning bed for a variety of reasons, but most mention appearance and relaxation as key motives.
Sophomore Nicole Hohler likes the idea of getting a tan during any season. “I love when you get to lie in a warm bed when it’s winter and cold outside,” she said. “I also don’t like being really pasty, and I’d rather spend 15 minutes getting color while also enjoying the calming and relaxing environment.”
Junior Erin Koehler agrees and feels using tanning beds relieves all of her worries. “I love feeling the warmth of the lights, and when I’m stressed or not feeling well, all it takes is 10 or 15 minutes and I feel so much better,” Koehler said. “Plus, I get a nice tan in the end.”
Despite the obvious attractions, Beatrice Secretan-Lauby, a researcher from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, feels indoor tanners still need to take precautions. “If you are fair-skinned, have blue eyes and/or blonde hair, do not use tanning beds,” she said. “It’s also important to watch out for photosensitive medication, always wear goggles, never exceed the time recommended for your skin type or never exceed the maximum number of exposures per year, never go on consecutive days, and do not go if you are sunburned.”
The dangers are sobering
The dangers of using tanning beds keep many teens away from the salons. Some of these risks include sunburns, eye damage, premature aging, DNA damage, mutations, cell damage, changes in immune system response, skin thickening and, in some cases, cancer of the skin and of the eye.
Bearing the health risks of tanning beds in mind, sophomore Allison Borders feels people shouldn’t use them. “It’s so scary that using tanning beds can lead to one of the worst things that can happen to someone – cancer,” she said. “I feel people can go outside and get the same amount of sun and an even better tan without damaging their skin at such an extreme.”
A recent analysis of about 20 studies has concluded the risk of skin cancer jumps by 75 percent when people start using tanning beds before age 30.
Shannon Verma, a dermatologist at Dermatology of Southwest Ohio, feels teens who start to tan at such a young age experience major problems when they become adults. “Teenagers don’t recognize the serious risks tanning beds have, and they don’t realize what they’ll look like when they’re older. I’ve seen several people get an addiction to indoor tanning at such a young age that they turn around and they’re 30 with wrinkles, dark spots everywhere and a body that looks much older than their age,” Verma said. “The worst part about this is it’s incredibly difficult to stress to teenagers, or even adults, that what they’re doing is dangerous and needs to be controlled.”
Tanners often go to a dermatologist once they realize they’ve been tanning excessively, Verma says. Normally, they recognize their problem and feel guilty they’ve been doing it almost their entire life, but they refuse to stop because it makes them feel good. Verma thinks it’s even harder to help adults because they’ve had the addiction longer.
Risks are now well-known
When indoor tanning became available in the United States 32 years ago, few knew the hazards tanning beds would bring to teens and adults. As the 1990s rolled in, tanning salons became highly popular and the tanning craze showed no signs of slowing down. But as problems started to arise among the individuals who used indoor tanning, the health risks of sun beds became clearer.
“Several generations ago, we didn’t know it was bad,” Verma said. “But today, no one has excuses for not knowing about the risks and hazards of tanning beds.”
Most tanners are aware of these risks because tanning salons notify tanners of the risks they’re taking while using tanning beds. When a person goes tanning for the first time at a new place, they must sign a contract that recognizes the damages of UV rays. In the contract is a list of medications that could pose a problem to tanners if they’re taking them while tanning. The contract says if tanners are currently taking those medications, they should check with their doctor to see if it’s safe to indoor tan.
Not only are there warnings in contracts, but tanning salons also post warning signs everywhere, especially in the tanning rooms, that specify the maximum temperature of the bed for safety precautions.
Healthier alternatives are available
Tanning beds are by no means the only way of getting that desired tan. The alternatives provide a healthy skin tone without the risks. “Other options besides tanning beds include spray-on tans and self-tanning lotions as well,” Verma said. “These alternatives actually give good color to the skin and produce satisfying results for teenagers and adults.”
Sophomore Deven Gannon, who went tanning once and regrets it, agrees that tanning beds aren’t the only answer. “Spray-on tans seem to work unless people overdo it and end up looking orange. Also, I don’t see why people can’t just go outside and tan naturally,” Gannon said. “I know that’s what I plan on doing instead of harming my body.”