Indoor tanners tempting fate?

April 1, 2005

National report — Safe tanning guidelines too often go unheeded at tanning salons, according to a nationwide survey published in the February issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

The survey of 296 tanning facilities revealed widespread failures to notify salon patrons of possible risks. It found that 75 percent of surveyed employees said customers can tan daily or as often as they like, even if they're beginners.

In March, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) also issued a statement endorsing a recent World Health Organization recommendation that no one under 18 years of age use a tanning bed.

But a tanning industry spokesman disagrees with the consumer magazine's report.

"A lot of it depends on how you ask that question," says John Overstreet, the executive director of the International Tanning Association (ITA). "I don't believe salons let people come as often as they want. It would be foolish on the part of the business. The goal of indoor tanning is to have a pleasant experience for the customer."

Organizations such as the ITA are "desperately trying to teach salon owners and their employees the consequences of tanning and to make sure they never cause burning in any of their patrons," says Boston University's Michael F. Holick, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist who advocates limited sun exposure as a means of promoting health. Dr. Holick has received grant funding from the ITA through the university.

He says the tanning industry in recent years has taken pains to bring salon operators into line with federal and, increasingly, state regulations.

Many deny risks U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require that each tanning device carry warnings against repeated overexposure and other risks.

Still, Consumer Reports found that nearly 35 percent of salon employees denied that indoor tanning can cause skin cancer, premature aging or both. And more than 20 percent said minors could tan without adult consent.

"When you buy a pack of cigarettes," says James M. Spencer, M.D., "it comes with a warning: adults only, informed consent. Indoor tanning should be run the same way. But the indoor tanning industry fights it because one of their fastest-growing business segments is girls age 16 to 18."

Dr. Spencer is a member of the AAD's environment committee and clinical professor of dermatology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Currently, 29 states have passed regulations that supplement FDA rules. Four have mandatory age minimums for tanning - California, Illinois and Texas, 14, and Wisconsin, 16.

Joseph Levy, vice president of the International Smart Tan Network, an education-oriented industry association, says the professional tanning industry supports requiring parental consent for all tanners under age 18. "But as long as the anti-tanning lobby continues to inaccurately parallel tanning with smoking, their efforts - however well-intended - will be seen by both teenagers and parents as hyperbole, and therefore will continue to be ignored," he says.

"I would be opposed to (parental consent)," says Dr. Spencer. "I can't sign a consent form for my 15-year-old to buy vodka."

Melanoma on the rise Some doctors say data show that tanning salon patrons have an increased risk of developing melanoma.