7 scary facts about tanning you may not know

By Tracie Snowder | Posted - Jun. 5, 2014 at 7:21 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to public awareness campaigns during Sun Safety Week, almost everyone knows that tanning is bad for a person's skin and can cause cancer. But that doesn’t stop 30 million Americans who hit the tanning salon every year.

In the U.S., the tanning industry is making over $5 billion annually even with the rising risk of skin cancer.

While people may think they already know everything about the dangers of tanning, think again. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced it is updating tanning beds and sunlamps from a Class I to a Class II medical device after years of studying their effects. The FDA will also make manufacturers acknowledge cancer risks in its product information and add warning labels.

“Although some people think that a tan gives them a ‘healthy’ glow, any tan is a sign of skin damage,” Sharon Miller, a FDA scientist and international expert on UV radiation and tanning, said in a press release.

And Utahns need to take particular heed to minimizing their exposure to UV lights. Utah has one of the highest rates of new melanoma diagnoses in the U.S. — 37 percent higher than the national average, according to Summit County has the highest rate in Utah with 124 percent higher than the national average. This is because of the high elevation and outdoor activities that keep Utahns in the sun all year long.

The most important thing to do to protect oneself against skin cancer is to minimize exposure to harmful UV rays, except when medically necessary. Here are some other facts about tanning if you're on the fence about quitting your UV habit.

Malignant melanoma. The risk of developing melanoma in Utah is 37 percent higher than the national average. (Photo: Shutterstock)

1. Tanning beds increase your risk of melanoma — by a lotThere’s a myth floating around that UV light from tanning beds doesn’t cause cancer. Studies have found that people exposed to UV light by tanning beds increase their risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent. Another study found it can make a person three times more likely to get melanoma. Melanoma is the second-most common cancer for women ages 20-29, the highest demographic of tanning bed consumers.

The FDA is particularly concerned about teens and young kids using tanning beds. The Melanoma Foundation of New England reported 2.5 million teens use a tanning bed every year, and some start as early as 13. And those sunburns while they're young only add to their risk, a new study suggests. Women who have at least five sunburns that blistered while in their teens are more likely to develop skin cancer.

2. Tanning beds are a Class II medical device

The FDA raised the classification level for tanning beds and sunlamps, but what does that mean? Instead of being labeled as low-risk, they will now be labeled as a moderate-risk medical device. The devices also have to have a black box warning label, the FDA’s strongest warning, that said children 18 years and younger should not use the device.

3. Tanning beds may be more dangerous than the sun

U.S. skin cancer statistics
  • Indoor tanning is attributed about 419,000 cases of skin cancer every year (For comparison, smoking causes about 226,000 cases of lung cancer every year)

  • 32% of girls in the 12th grade use tanning beds

  • 29% of white high school girls use tanning beds

  • 32% of non-Hispanic white women aged 18– 21 years use tanning beds

  • 70% of tanning bed users are Caucasian girls and women, primarily aged 16 to 29 years.

  • More than 1 million people use a tanning bed every day

  • Your risk of melanoma increases 59 percent with your first tanning bed use, and the risk increases each time you use it

Some advocates claim tanning is less dangerous, the FDA said, because the UV light isn’t as strong and people aren’t in the beds for that long. UV lights in tanning beds emit UVA and UVB lights just like the sun, but they have the potential to be stronger, the FDA reported. Unlike the sun, whose light and intensity varies by time of day, cloud cover and season, a tanning bed light emits the same intensity no matter what.

4. There’s no such thing as a safe tan

Plain and simple, tan skin equals damaged skin, and a person doesn’t need a "base tan” before vacation to avoid a sunburn.

“A tan is the skin’s reaction to exposure to UV rays,” Miller said. “Recognizing exposure to the rays as an ‘insult,’ the skin acts in self-defense by producing more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin.”

The best way for people to protect their skin on their beach vacation is to use sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 and to limit time in direct sunlight.

5. Tanning can cause wrinkles now and leathery skin later

If a person is tanning because he or she thinks it makes he or she look better, beware that "healthy glow." All the damage they are doing to their skin will catch up with them quicker than they think. Tanning in a bed or outside “causes the skin to lose elasticity and wrinkle prematurely,” the FDA reported. A person's skin will also get leathery in appearance years later.

6. Tanning without eye protection can damage eyesight

If people are sitting in a bed without protective goggles on, they are increasing their risk of damaging their eyes. Eyelids are designed to protect a person's eyes, but the skin is very thin and fragile, said. Eyelids can develop skin cancer and although rare, a person can develop cancers in his or her eye. Up to 10 percent of cataracts are caused by UV light, reported. Some of these diseases can cause blindness.

The good news is that almost all of these diseases can be detected by an ophthalmologist, so make sure you are getting yearly exams.

7. Don’t be so quick to trust tanning salon operators


A recent survey conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found the following:

  • 43 percent of operators say there are no risks for tanning beds
  • 56 percent let customers tan without eye protection
  • 65 percent would let pre- teens tan in their salon
  • 80 percent say tanning can prevent future sunburns
If a person wants to be tan, use a tanning lotion. For those who continue to use tanning beds, their best bet to surviving skin cancer is early detection from annual skin exams, experts say.

To help your kids get excited about sun safety, have them watch the Despicable Me 2 Sun Safety Campaign by Universal Studios Australia for some tips on how to stay safe in the sun.


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