Teens and indoor tanning: communicating health risks

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  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Actinic keratosis
  • Melanoma
  • Risk factors
  • Signs & symptoms
  • Prevention
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Skin cancer

When I was a teenager, my mom started many a lecture with these words: “I know you think you are invincible now, but just you wait.” Now I often find myself thinking this very thought during my encounters with adolescent patients, particularly those who frequent indoor tanning salons.  

Where I practice in southern New Jersey, tanning salons are popular with teens, and the MTV show “Jersey Shore” contributes to glorifying the trend.

When I ask patients why they tan, I get a variety of responses. Some teens tell me that tanning is an addiction. Others feel that it makes them healthier — they tan to keep their vitamin D levels up in the winter. Many begin tanning to look good for an event, like the prom or graduation, explaining that it is quicker and easier than spending time outdoors, especially if the weather is bad.

I have heard adolescent patients, and even their parents, tell me that tanning salons are safer than real sun exposure, and some moms tell me that they tan with their daughters.

It is important that clinicians remind patients that ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, increases the risk of skin cancer — the most common type of cancer in the United States. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer has also become more prevalent during the past 30 years and could possibly be linked to the recent popularity of indoor tanning.

Many young women are not concerned about skin cancer, but the risk is real. Several health organizations including the American Academy of Dermatology, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and WHO support enacting legislation that would prohibit adolescents younger than 18 years from accessing tanning salons. And recommendations already exist advising parents to limit their children's UV exposure.

Whenever I discuss risky behaviors with teen patients I am consistently amazed at what motivates them to change their behavior. When discussing smoking, many adolescent girls don't blink an eye at the risk for lung cancer, but  mention that they will have saggy breasts and urinary incontinence before their nonsmoking peers, and they start to listen.

Young patients often consider themselves invincible, so it may take a few different approaches before you get through to them. When discussing the health risks associated with indoor tanning, I try to incorporate stories about close friends who have lost loved ones to melanoma. I also encourage the use of self-tanning lotion and spray tans, and emphasize the importance of sunscreen.

If all else fails, I remind teen patients that although they feel healthy with a tan today, excess UV exposure speeds up the aging process, and they will pay later with wrinkles!

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