The health benefits and risks of indoor tanning have long been controversial, but a proposed law banning minors from tanning has brought the issue into the limelight.
The Youth Skin Cancer Prevention Act was approved by the House Health and Human Services Committee last week, the first hurdle toward being becoming law.
The act was prompted by research showing that people under 18 who frequent tanning beds are more at risk for cancer later in life than those who don’t. It would prevent people under 18 from tanning, and also prevent tanning salons from promoting the health benefits of tanning.
“We’ve seen far too many young people who’ve been diagnosed with invasive melanoma who have had tanning bed exposure,” said Dr. Kelly Nelson, a dermatologist who heads a melanoma clinic at Duke University Medical Center. “While we know that not all melanoma is a direct result of UV exposure, for those that are associated with early tanning, we want to do everything possible to protect them.”
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A report from the World Health Organization said tanning bed use before age 35 triples the risk of developing melanoma.
At least 14 other states require parental permission for anyone under 18.
Now, the tanning industry and teens who use tanning beds are pointing out the benefits of using tanning beds.
“Building a base tan is your body’s way of protecting you from skin-damaging burns,” said Amanda Siedlecky, owner of Mimi’s Tanning Shak in Knightdale. So if teens expose themselves to direct sunlight – as many do while on, say, spring break – they’re more likely to get burned if they haven’t built up a base tan, she said.
Spray tans aren’t the answer, Siedlecky said.
For one, spray tan equipment costs more than $10,000, she said. Secondly, it does nothing to build a tan. Siedlecky compared it to putting on makeup.
“It’s purely cosmetic. Your skin isn’t protected,” she said.
Siedlecky and others worry that the politicians who want to ban teenagers from tanning beds don’t understand the process. Tanners spend, on average, 5 to 10 minutes in a tanning bed at a daily session. Regular customers visit Siedlecky’s store about three times a week. Teens younger than 18 must have their parents sign a consent form before their first session.
Nelson said, however, that the time spent in the tanning bed is not equal to the time spent outdoors in the sun because the light in a tanning bed is much more concentrated. She said depending on the bulbs of the different types of tanning beds, and the pigmentation of a person’s skin, the rays from a tanning bed vary in how much more concentrated they are than natural sunlight.
Shelly Steel, 17, is a student at West Johnston High School, and she says she has been tanning for the past year on-and-off at A Day at the Beach in Clayton.
“I go before summer so I don’t get sunburnt,” said Steel. She just bought a 3-month package at the tanning salon, and said she would be really mad if she couldn’t use it, since she already spent the money. Lucky for her, her birthday is in a month, so within a matter of weeks she would still be able to tan legally, even if the act passes.
Effect on business owners
The tanning industry views the bill as an attack on small businesses. Crystal Ramirez is the owner of A Day at the Beach. She said the majority of her business is not made up by people under 18, but her peak season is the two months leading up to prom. So, if the minors were to be banned from tanning, her peak season may won’t be as strong.
“It would mainly effect the employees,” said Ramirez, “We may not be able to allow employees to work the same hours any more if our business slows because of the ban.”
Ramirez believes the bill is stepping on the parents’ toes.
“It’s kind of like the government saying we care more about your kids than you do,” said Ramirez. She said she has some customers currently who are prescribed to tan by their doctors as a treatment for various skin or mood disorders, from Vitamin D deficiency to depression.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if more people came in with a prescription if it passes,” said Ramirez.
State Rep. Chris Malone, a cosponsor of the bill, in a phone interview on Feb. 27 seemed to be having second thoughts about supporting a ban. “I don’t know how I feel about interrupting free markets,” Malone said. “I saw competing data on what happens [to minors tanning.]”
“I certainly think we should do more education on their effects,” Malone said.
For Nelson, though, the issue is not up for debate.
“When I counsel my young patients who have used tanning beds who have come to me because they now have melanoma, we talk about non-UV mechanisms that will give them a tan look to their skin if that’s what they want,” said Nelson. “We talk about the spray tan option and that keeps the small businesses doing business in the community, but it doesn’t incur the same risks.”
Laws in other states vary on the issue of teenagers and tanning beds. Vermont and California ban anyone under 18 from using tanning salons. Wisconsin bans anyone under 16.
The bill is backed by the American Cancer Society. Because it was not approved unanimously, it will next go to the House Regulatory Reform Committee.