Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer diagnosed each year in the United States but it is also one of the most preventable. Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, like that found in sunlight. Not surprisingly, many skin cancers are found in elderly people and people who have spent a lot of time in the sun. However, a recent and disturbing trend has been the rapidly rising rate of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, in young women over the past few decades. Scientists primarily attribute this increase to the increased use of artificial UV indoor tanning beds. There is a strong body of scientific evidence that shows the risk of melanoma and other skin cancers increases as a result of indoor tanning use because the artificial UV radiation from tanning beds damages skin cells in a way that can lead to cancer development. Despite the risks, indoor tanning remains a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States.
The public health impact of tanning beds can be surprising. A study out last year from BMJ (doi: 10.1136/bmj.e5909) reported that each year 170,000 new cases of skin cancer in the United States can be contributed to indoor tanning. That is an average of more than 450 cases of skin cancer every day in the US. A 2011 study from the International Journal of Cancer (doi: 10.1002/ijc.25576) examined 18-29 year old women who had a history of indoor tanning use and found that nearly 4 in 5 melanomas found in this group were attributable to indoor tanning use. Based on the strong body of evidence that indoor tanning leads to skin cancer, many respected national and international health organizations have recommended that tanning beds should be avoided. That list includes the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Academy of Dermatology.
The winter and early spring months are when indoor tanning is most popular. Give your skin a break this winter and skip the tanning bed. The tan you get from indoor tanning will fade but the skin damage is permanent. If you really want to keep your tan during these months, sunless spray-on tans are the healthy way to go. Spray-on tanning technology is better than ever and can give you the glow you desire now without damaging how you will look later.
Jerod Stapleton, PhD, is a behavioral scientist in the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.