A stunning 20 million to 30 million Americans each year use tanning beds. Use is particularly concentrated among young white women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 30 percent of white women between the ages of 18 and 25 used an indoor tanning machine in 2010. And about 60 percent of that group did so at least 10 times during the year.
The ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning far exceeds that of the natural sun. For example, tanning machines’ output of UVA rays, which cause skin darkening, is at least four times that of natural sunlight, even the rays during the summer at noon in Washington. The UVB output, which causes burns, is about twice that of natural sunlight.
Studies suggest that people who use indoor tanning before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma (the most serious type of skin cancer) by about 75 percent. Similarly, the National Cancer Institute estimates that women who use indoor tanning at least once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop melanoma.
The Indoor Tanning Association, an industry lobbying group, has claimed that indoor tanning is safer than exposure to natural sunlight. But the Federal Trade Commission has found those claims to be false, and forced the association to stop making them.
I wish I could say “why? Why is this happening?”
But I know why. It happens because girls don’t realize the risk is real. According to one mother who lets her children use tanning booths, “fear-mongering” about tanning booths is like those urban legends about cell phones sending out bad waves that will hurt you. It’s a myth.
We have so much information that we don’t know what to believe. It wasn’t all that long ago I myself remember hearing about how tanning salons were “safer than the sun” (which I believed to be true until fairly recently).
And of course we have seriously messed-up values, that many girls don’t understand what’s wrong with risking skin cancer tomorrow if it means looking fabulous today.
Maybe we should have tested this technology somewhere else, before testing it using an entire generation or two as guinea pigs.