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Melanoma on the Rise in Young Adults: Are Tanning Beds the Cigarettes of Their Generation?

Woman wearing sunscreen.

In July 2009, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that it moved UV tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category: "carcinogenic to humans." This category includes asbestos, uranium, and—you guessed it—cigarettes.

Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is the second most frequently reported cancer in women in their 20s. While the lifetime risk of melanoma is greater in males than females, there's been an eight-fold increase for young women and a four-fold increase for young men in melanoma cases. Experts believe this is partially due to the use of tanning beds.

The Popularity of Tanning Beds

Each year, nearly 2.3 American teenagers visit tanning salons; nearly 70 percent are female. Whether to build a base tan or continue their year-long bronze, young adults flock to these electric beaches at alarming rates.

So is there a correlation between the popularity of tanning beds and the increase in melanoma in young people?

Seven international studies have shown that young adults who use tanning beds before the age of 35 increase their risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent. It seems like the writing is on the wall. But what are we doing to protect our youth?

Tanning Bed Bans

Because UV exposure in childhood and teenage years can be so damaging, legislators in some states are regulating minors' use of tanning beds. California and Vermont ban the use of tanning beds for all people under 18, and at least 33 states regulate the use of tanning facilities by minors. Even New Jersey, whose state-based reality series, The Jersey Shore, coined the phrase "GTL" (gym, tanning, laundry), bans the use of tanning beds for minors under 17.

With the popularity of tanning beds and the number of melanoma cases on the rise, will we start to view the use of tanning beds like we do the use of cigarettes? New restrictions lead us to believe it's a possibility, but it certainly won't change overnight.

When it's all said and done, tanning salons remain a popular commodity in most gyms, housing complexes, and strip malls. Like cigarettes, it's not likely that they'll go away completely, but in addition to the state's restrictions there are personal precautions that we can take to protect ourselves from skin cancer.

Taking Care of Your Skin and Getting a Screening

The best way to avoid skin cancer, aside from avoiding tanning beds, is to take basic precautions.

  • Cover up when you go outside. When possible, wear hats, shirts, sunglasses, etc.—anything to try and block direct exposure to the sun.
  • Use sunscreen. Even when you cover up, it's important to use sunscreen. A sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 blocks 93 percent of UV rays.
  • Reapply sunscreen. The reapplication of sunscreen is so important that it deserves its own bullet point. Be sure to read the application directions on the bottle, but as a general rule of thumb, you should reapply every two to three hours. This is one of the best ways to prevent sunburn.
  • Try to limit exposure. It's difficult to avoid the sun altogether—no one expects you to do that. But you can be smart about when you go out and how long you stay out. The sun is strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., even on cloudy days. Try to limit your time out in the sun during these hours.
  • Get a screening. One of the biggest reasons skin cancer can be so dangerous is that people don't get suspicious spots checked out. Be sure to talk to your doctor about getting a skin cancer screening.

Drexel Dermatology

Drexel Dermatology offers comprehensive services for all skin care conditions including skin cancer, cosmetic dermatology, moles and birthmarks, pediatric dermatology, and any other skin related concerns.

The information on these pages is provided for general information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, or as a substitute for consultation with a physician or health care professional. If you have specific questions or concerns about your health, you should consult your health care professional.

The images being used are for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted is a model.

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