This girl in a tanning bed should provoke the same response in you that a photo of a 5 year-old smoking a cigarette would.

This girl in a tanning bed should provoke the same response in you that a photo of a 5 year-old smoking a cigarette would.

More than a million people go indoor tanning every day and research says the average city has more tanning salons than they do Starbucks or McDonalds (I’m wondering about Seattle though since coffee shops truly dot every block). I’m also guessing the tanning industry is somewhat seasonal; if we did the research on which week people go tanning, we’d find a bump during winter break, yes?

The pre-vacation tan is often used as a handy excuse for hitting the indoor tanning salon this time of year. There’s no such thing as a “safe” tan since tanning is a reflection of damage to the skin cells — a tan is the body’s response to damaged DNA in the skin cells. However, vacationers (lucky you!) often feel that getting a tan before they go to the equator will protect them. Instinct here is wrong.

Data finds that those who indoor tan before their trip are careless while on the trip, thinking they are protected, and in the end have more sun exposure and ultimately more sunburn than those who don’t.

People may visit a tanning salon to prepare the skin for a sunny vacation, the “prevacation tan”, thinking that a “base tan” will protect against subsequent skin damage during the vacation. This leads to extra radiation before the vacation and also afterward, because people may use fewer sun-protection precautions during the vacation because of a mistaken belief that the tan will protect them. The “prevacation tan” results in minimal protection (an estimated SPF of 3) and provides virtually no protection against sun induced DNA damage. ~ Pediatrics, April 2013

Who’s Going Tanning?

12-23 graph

While indoor tanning laws for teens vary from state to state, (a law passed earlier this year in Washington State bans tanning to those under 18 – only way a teenager under 18 can tan is if they have a doctor’s prescription) high-schoolers are a group the tanning industry caters to. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey data suggest an estimated 1.5 million female high school students engage in indoor tanning, most of them under the age of 18.

A recent research letter from JAMA brings good and bad news. The good: indoor tanning is decreasing among high school females of every race. The bad: nearly one in three non-hispanic white teenage girls is still going tanning! Many teens know there are risks but I suspect they misunderstand the skin damage, wrinkles, and skin cancer risk they’re getting — epecially since data finds tanning is most dangerous when started young. I’ve written about the understandable drive to look good involved with tanning in the past. Our job: we need to teach these teens that tanning really will in the long range deter beauty, not boost it. Trouble is, research also finds, “Knowledge about the dangers of UV [radiation] often does not change tanning behavior.”

There are absolutely no health benefits to tanning beds for children. 

Tanning Alternatives

I get why many use indoor tanning. Winter leaves people feeling washed out and sometimes a glow provides an extra spring in your step. Studies confirm how people feel about tans, “In 1 study, 67.8% of youth agreed with the statement ‘I look better when I have a tan’ and 55% agreed with the statement ‘I feel healthy when I have a nice tan.’” As spelled out above, a pre-vacation tan is never a good idea though.

If you or your teen wants to darken your skin, you don’t need to use a tanning bed to do it. These days there are dozens of spray tans/lotions/gels for every skin type. Color without the harmful UV rays and long-lasting health troubles that can come from it. This winter break help young girls (in particular) avoid the indoor tanning urge.