Blair Horner: The Dangers Of Indoor Tanning

May 6, 2019

The weather is warming up and many think of lying in the sun to get some relaxation and a tan.  Others look to a short-cut: Indoor tanning.  That decision could change their lives.

Indoor tanning raises the risks of skin cancer as well as immune suppression, eye damage, and premature aging of the skin. The World Health Organization and the United State Department of Health and Human Services have elevated tanning beds to the highest cancer risk category - group 1 – “carcinogenic to humans.”

Subsequent research by the nation’s top medical facilities, including Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Public Health, has reinforced that finding.  In New York, according to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 5,150 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Researchers estimate that indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year.

UV radiation exposure, particularly from indoor tanning, is a leading risk factor for the development of skin cancers. While excessive exposure to the sun permanently increases one’s cancer risk through cumulative damage, indoor tanning compounds the risks by delivering concentrated bursts.  This results in faster mutations in the body, as the UV rays alter the configuration of human DNA. This explains why individuals who have used tanning beds have a much greater risk of developing skin cancers as compared to those who have never used tanning devices.

The risk is significant to all users, but there has been increasing data showing the impact it can have on younger people, particularly those under the age of 18.  Currently, a substantial number of young teens are using tanning beds, with use increasing with age.  Among those teens, the rates were highest among female 17-year-old high school students.

Peer-reviewed scientific studies strengthen the indoor tanning-cancer connection.  A review of 27 European studies concluded: Sunbed use is associated with a significant increase in risk of melanoma. This risk increases with number of sunbed sessions and with initial usage at a young age (<35 years). The cancerous damage associated with sunbed use is substantial and could be avoided by strict regulations.

When the World Health Organization determined that the UV rays found in indoor tanning booths were a human carcinogen, they also stated that individuals who used indoor tanning devices before the age of 30 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent. 

People who use indoor tanning equipment face a 59 percent higher risk of melanoma than those who do not, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Facts like those have driven states like New York to ban the use of indoor tanning facilities for those under the age of 18.

Those over the age of 18 also need to know the facts.  Under New York health regulations, in order to use an indoor tanning bed, adult users must sign a form alerting them to the dangers inherent in its use – the first line says “Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a human carcinogen and can cause skin cancer.”  Users are also required to acknowledge that they received a “tanning information sheet” which also provides more details about the hazards of indoor tanning including that use increases the risk of skin cancer.

The warning label required by the federal government has information on it that states the skin cancer risk, but is buried in the text.

None of these forms and labels are stark.  More can be done.

One does not have to look far to see an alternative.  300 miles north of Albany. N.Y. is Canada.  That nation has also recognized the dangers of indoor tanning and banned its use by minors.  It’s warning label for adults, however, is compelling.

In the upper portion of the Canadian warning label, on a white background, the word “Danger” is written in red with the hazard symbol to its right.  Underneath, the Canadian label warns “Tanning Equipment Can Cause Cancer” in yellow on a black background,

The label goes on to warn that “Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure can be hazardous to your health” and “UV effects are cumulative and may be carcinogenic -- greater risks are associated with early and repeated exposure.”

And at least two nations have gone one step further: Brazil and Australia now ban indoor tanning salons altogether.  The American Academy of Dermatology supports a ban.

New York should follow the best science out there to be more protective.  Indoor tanning poses a significant health risk.  New Yorkers should know of the danger.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.