Summer’s almost here, but if you live in Boston you might not realize it. With the exception of a few bright afternoons, cold and rain have dominated June’s forecasts, which isn’t unusual considering New England’s somewhat schizophrenic weather patterns.
But if the tanned appearance of many young Bostonians was your only gauge of summer, you might think the city has been 80 degrees and sunny since December. Many New England teenagers, especially girls, use artificial tanning beds prior to beach season to build up a “healthy base tan,” before that first trip to the beach. While a preseason bronze may lessen beach anxiety for the self-conscious sunbather, it also makes the tanner 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma than non-tanning bed users according to a study released in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, MD, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Hematology/OncologyDivision, says teens that use tanning beds may be even more at risk for skin problems than the study indicates. Rodriguez-Galindo notes that people who use tanning devices are usually the same people who spend a lot of time in the sun and the double exposure compounds their risk for developing skin conditions like melanoma, which has seen a sustained 3% annual increase in teenage cases each year.
“It’s likely that people who use tanning beds are also the type of people who are getting too much sun exposure to begin with, often without the right protection,” he says. “What you see then is a population that’s already at risk of getting a skin condition increasing their chances of developing one.”
Rodriguez-Galindo says sunscreen should be worn anytime a person plans on being directly exposed to UV rays, but it’s a misconception that suntan lotion will automatically protect you from all potential harm. This is especially true in tanning beds where the user is in such close range to UV ray sources. “To be safe it’s recommended you wear sunscreen and avoid direct exposure to UV lights, so if you cover yourself in sunscreen and go into a tanning bed it’s almost contradictory,” he says. “You’re decreasing the risk of developing a skin condition, but you’re still very much at risk.”
The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that almost 9 percent of teens over the age of 14 use artificial tanning devices, and girls were seven times more likely than boys to use them.
Troubling numbers, but lawmakers have a plan they hope will discourage young people from using these potentially dangerous machines. In an effort to offset the many medical expenses attributed to skin cancers by people who willfully engage in risky behaviors, the government recently passed a tanning bed tax. Starting this July, a 10 percent tax on artificial tanning devices— similar to taxes placed on tobacco and alcohol— will go into effect in all 50 states.
Rodriguez-Galindo says he’s hopeful the tax will discourage young people from using tanning beds, but remains skeptical. “A tax on any behavior that increases the risk of long-term damage could be good, especially if it deters kids that may have less to spend and aren’t really thinking about the big picture of their future health,” he says. “We’ll have to wait and see if this really stops anyone from using tanning beds. I think it might be a good idea, but I’m not sure it will help.”
If teenagers are going to use artificial tanning devices, spend too much time in the sun (or both) Rodriguez-Galindo suggests frequent, thorough self-examinations and seeking medical consultation for any moles or color changes that develop. This advice is especially important for regular tanners.
“[People who tan a lot] tend to have darker skin already, and may have seen harmless discolorations come and go before. If you have one mole or dark spot it’s easy to notice, but if you have many it’s difficult to know which are harmless and which are going to be trouble,” he says. “Routine skin exams are the best chance of early detection and treatment.”