It's Indoor Tanning Season. But Watch Out

A new law requires the FDA to consider more prominent warnings. Here's why

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Bronzing agent? Horizontal bed or vertical booth? Eleven thousand or 22,000 watts? Eight minutes or 12? Shopping for a tan isn't for the indecisive, I realized during a recent visit to a Solar Planet tanning salon in Washington, D.C. On the advice of the receptionist, I ended up in "The Orbit," a horizontal tanning bed, which looks something like a cross between a coffin and a clam shell and boasts 48 bulbs that produce 11,000 watts of ultraviolet A and B light. After disrobing and applying eye guards and tanning lotion, I eased onto its transparent surface and pulled the lid down around me.

Had I not just spent the day interviewing indignant dermatologists about the wisdom of doing this, it's unlikely I would have noticed the inconspicuous warning label on the Orbit's lid. "Repeat exposure may cause premature aging of the skin and cancer," it said. Hmmm. The fact that lots of people don't appreciate the risks is a big and growing problem, dermatologists argue: Some 30 million people seek an indoor tan yearly, many of them teenagers. And rates of skin cancer are skyrocketing. Melanoma, for example, the deadliest type of skin cancer, has increased more than 690 percent since 1950. And between 2005 and 2006 alone, the rate increased 9 percent. These concerns prompted Congress and the president to pass a law in September requiring the Food and Drug Administration to consider whether the current warnings on equipment are enough to get the job done.

What are the risks? Reams of new data have come out in the past decade highlighting the link between tanning salons and skin cancer, says Henry Lim, the vice president of the American Academy of Dermatology. One 2002 study by researchers at Dartmouth Medical School found indoor tanners were 2.5 times as likely to get squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times as likely to develop basal cell carcinoma as people who didn't tan; the study didn't analyze melanoma rates. Another report from Norway and Sweden followed women who regularly used tanning beds for eight years and found they had a 55 percent greater chance of developing melanoma than those who didn't.

Some tanning salon advertisements make the case that indoor tanning is a safer option than outdoor tanning because it is more controlled. Many dermatologists find that claim difficult to accept. The fact is that ultraviolet light from tanning beds damages skin in the same way that outdoor ultraviolet radiation does. So it isn't necessarily a matter of one source of UV light being healthier than the other, they say. Rather, the key risk factor is overall cumulative exposure. And the convenience of tanning salons is upping exposure for many people. Moreover, new high-pressure sunlamps emit doses that can be as much as 15 times that of the sun, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Not surprisingly, the Indoor Tanning Association, a trade group that represents the tanning industry, counters with the possible benefits of producing extra vitamin D. They point to the work of researchers like Michael Holick of Boston University (who has received funding from the association), suggesting that getting significantly more than 200 international units of vitamin D a day, the current government recommendation for people under 50, can help ward off a host of maladies such as diabetes, cancer, and even the flu. Dermatologists think it's considerably safer to spend 10 minutes or so a few times a week in the sun and look to fish, milk, and dietary supplements for more.

A few minutes into the $31 session at Solar Planet, as the warm glow envelops me, I can feel a tingling pleasant sensation coming on. Steven Feldman, a dermatologist at Wake Forest University, tells me this is because basking in ultraviolet light releases endorphins that produce the sensation of pleasure similar to that produced by a runner's high. He's even shown that frequent tanners experience withdrawal symptoms when they're cut off. Yikes. That may help explain indoor tanning's appeal, but I'm sure I won't be coming back anytime soon. Even if the increased odds of death due to skin cancer may be small, 1 in 5 Americans will get skin cancer, usually because of light exposure, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And I already have a number of moles that make my doctors nervous.