According to a recent press release by DermaNetwork.org, more than 20 states currently have legislation pending about restricting tanning bed usage. Of these states, two – Arkansas and Mississippi – signed into law new legislation to restrict access for minors under 14 to tanning salons in March of 2009, and one – Montana – failed to get such legislation passed in May 2009.
Tanning beds do in fact pose a substantial risk to minors, even more so than to adults. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, an estimated 80 percent of sun damage occurs before age 18. Given the fact that the average tanning bed (or other artificial UV light source) provides approximately three times the DNA-damaging long-wavelength UVA rays (192.1 W/m2 on average) than the sun, it is easy to see why use of tanning beds in youth is particularly alarming. In addition, this 2005 study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention confirms that use of tanning beds prior to age 18 significantly increases a patient’s risk of malignant melanoma later in life. In the study, it was confirmed that both earlier use of tanning beds and regular use of tanning beds throughout youth substantially increased cancer risk. With approximately 10,500 American lives lost to skin cancer each year, it is no wonder that restrictive legislation looks so promising.
Yet the legislation may fall flat if parents and guardians do not recognize the risk of using tanning beds themselves. According to a 2002 study in Pediatrics, youth (age 11-18) were significantly more likely to use artificial UV light sources for tanning if their parent/guardian did so, with 30% of the youth with artificially tanning parents/guardians doing so themselves. (Other factors that make a young patient more likely to use tanning beds include female gender, age 15-18 as opposed to 11-14, and the belief that tanned skin is more attractive).
A second problem with the impending legislation is the fact that most youth using tanning beds are in the 15-18 range, whereas the legislation is primarily targeting children 14 and under. In fact, according to this 2002 study in Pediatrics amongst 10000 youths using tanning beds, tanning bed use increased from 7% among 14-year-old girls to 16% by age 15, and more than doubled again to 35% by age 17. Although earlier exposure does correlate to higher risk of malignant melanoma later in life, it is still haunting that legislation restricting tanning bed use under age 14 will ultimately not save as many lives as legislation affecting the 14-17 age range.
With that said, I personally believe that the only effective legislation will be that which sets advisory guidelines for UV exposure, concurrent activities, and sun protection, which has also been proposed in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology. Governmental legislation needs to inform parents and guardians of the true risks of sun exposure for their children and adolescents. There are simply too many erroneous beliefs circulating in our society about the sun – “the sun is good for you,” “a little base tan protects you in the future,” “everyone looks better with a tan,” etc., and it is no wonder parents are confused. With that said, the American Academy of Dermatology’s current sun exposure guidelines are available here, and the organization maintains that this amount of exposure is adequate for the body to synthesize enough vitamin D.
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