Decades of misinformation and a widespread misperception that tanning beds are a safe alternative to the sun as a way of getting that “healthy tan” after the winter months and before the prom have helped make melanoma responsible for six out of every seven skin cancer-related deaths.
Dr. Adam Riker, Medical Director of Cancer Services for the Ochsner Health System and surgical oncologist specializing in melanoma, states that tanning salons have spawned a multi-billion dollar a year industry by providing a service that knowingly increases the risk of all forms of skin cancer.
“I think there is the common misperception that the light emitted from tanning beds is somehow considered safe or even ‘better’ than natural sunlight,” Riker said. “There is no such thing as a safe tan, whether it is by a tanning bed or natural sunlight. The only safe tan as far as we can tell is the spray-on tan.”
With last summer’s tan long gone and winter pallor setting in, Riker said the temptation to opt for an artificial shortcut to a “golden glow” is high this time of year, but turning to a tanning bed is not only risky, but potentially deadly.
“We must dispel the myth of a ‘safe tan’ and continue to educate the public on the dangers of overexposure to UV irradiation, whether via tanning beds or naturally,” he said.
Tanning beds bombard skin cells with concentrated doses of UV irradiation at much higher rates compared to natural sunlight, making a quick tanning session potentially more dangerous than a day spent at the beach, Riker said.
“There is an overwhelming amount of evidence in the medical literature that UV irradiation has a direct causal link to the development of all forms of skin cancer,” he said. “We know that UV irradiation penetrates all layers of skin and causes DNA damage to our skin cells, which in turn, causes the transformation of normal cells into cancer cells.”
In fact, the World Health Organization recently classified UV irradiation, or solar radiation, as a Class 1 Carcinogen, defined as known to cause cancer in humans. It is listed alongside cigarettes, asbestos, mustard gas and plutonium-239 (in atomic bombs) as leading cancer-causing agents.
“The groups of individuals that are at most danger are teenage girls and younger women who are regularly utilizing tanning salons,” Riker said. “The highest incidence of melanoma is occurring in women between the ages of 20 and 35 according to a recent article in the Journal of Investigative Medicine.”
“Parents with teenage daughters need to have 100 percent oversight of what their daughters are doing when it comes to tanning,” he said. “Don’t allow your teenagers to utilize tanning salons under any circumstance. You are putting them in danger by increasing their chances of developing a skin cancer as they grow older. Most importantly, they are at a higher risk of developing melanoma in the future.”
In fact, many states have passed legislation that requires all individuals under the age of 16 years (some states, 18) to obtain parental consent before utilizing a tanning salon. Louisiana is not one these states presently.
In addition to avoiding tanning beds, Riker recommends that everyone perform a monthly full body, naked skin exam to look for any suspicious skin lesions, utilizing the ABCs:
A=Asymmetry, B=Border irregularity, C=Color change, D=Diameter more than 6mm, E=Evolution or Elevation.
If you find any of the ABCs, you should see your dermatologist immediately to have it checked out, as they are the experts who can recognize melanoma and other skin cancers.
When outdoors in the sun, Riker recommends using a waterproof sunblock with a rating of at least SPF 15, and most importantly, avoiding sunburning at all costs, as this only amplifies the amount of DNA damage to the skin.
For more information on what to look for when performing a full body skin exam and to watch a video on the sun’s effect on the skin, click here.