Study stirs teen tanning debate

June 1, 2006

National report - How can teenagers be convinced that their actions now will place their lives at risk in the future?

National report - How can teenagers be convinced that their actions now will place their lives at risk in the future?

With most teens believing they will live forever, the answer remains elusive, particularly to dermatologists whose young patients continue the quest for the perfect tan. Despite almost two decades of cries for safe sun habits, the reality is that 47 percent of teens actually think that a tan is equivalent to good health, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). While this thought process is dangerous in itself, a new study suggests that many high school newspapers carry ads for tanning beds, promoting a pattern of disease and hampering dermatologists' efforts to save future lives.

The research, published in the Archives of Dermatology, found that nearly half of the 23 Denver-area public high schools studied had tanning salon ads in the school newspaper, often targeting teens with "prom specials" and deep discounts for "unlimited" tanning.

Ignoring the messenger...

Even with a sustained sun prevention campaign detailing the dangers of tanning, teens as young as 13 are flocking to tanning booths.

A national study of 6,903 non-Hispanic white adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19, published in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, confirmed that 40 percent of females in this age group had used a tanning booth at least once; this figure increased with age, with 47 percent of those ages 18 to 19 participating in indoor tanning.

"Clearly, our sun prevention message has failed. The use of indoor tanning, as indicated by the tanning industry itself, is at an all-time high. As a result, we're seeing an ongoing increase in all types of skin cancer," says James M. Spencer, M.D., clinical professor, department of dermatology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "The increased ads (from the tanning industry) show that we're not winning the battle."

Although a recent survey by the AAD shows that most teens ages 12 to 17 (79 percent) are aware that getting a tan from the sun can be dangerous for their skin, a majority of teens (66 percent) believe people look better and healthier with a tan.

"Our message is simple: Wear sunscreen, wear a hat, avoid mid-day sun and avoid tanning beds. Yet, surveys show that two-thirds of teens do not wear sunscreen on a sunny day," says Dr. Spencer, who also maintains a private practice in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Just a decade ago, the number of those adults in their 20s diagnosed with skin cancer was rare, according to Dr. Spencer. Currently, he sees a new case every month, and his colleagues are noting the increase along with its marked differences.

"The common cancers, like basal cell, are now being seen on the torso - a result seen more often in those patients who use tanning beds," says Sandra I. Read, M.D., a private practitioner in Washington.

"We're suspecting that increased UV light from tanning is causing increased torso distribution."

...or, confused by the message?

Part of the reason teens are ignoring the sun and indoor tanning's deadly dangers may be that these risks are being confused with other messages.

Along with increased advertising, the tanning industry is also promoting the health benefits of vitamin D and its potential role in preventing other cancers as a reason for using tanning booths, according to Dr. Dellavalle.