Tanning has become the new smoking—or at least that's what skin cancer experts hope will happen as the Food and Drug Administration considers whether to put stricter limits on tanning beds. An FDA advisory committee recommended yesterday that people under 18 be barred from using tanning beds or at least required to have a signed consent form from their parents. In many cities, the number of indoor tanning salons exceeds the number of Starbucks, according to a 2009 study from San Diego State University, and many major health organizations would like that to change. The Skin Cancer Foundation says excessive tanning is probably behind the rise in deadly melanomas in young women ages 15 to 39, the most avid users of these salons. "The only purpose of a tanning salon is to give you a blast of a carcinogen," says Allan Halpern, Skin Cancer Foundation vice president, who treats a lot of skin cancers as chief of dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "Given our druthers, we'd like to see no tanning beds out there."
A total ban on tanning salons isn't likely, but teens could be barred by law from indoor tanning. The FDA probably won't issue a decision on its advisory panel's recommendations for several weeks or months. More than two dozen states already have laws requiring minors to get parental permission to use tanning salons, but studies have shown that those laws often aren't enforced. Making tanning beds illegal for young people—similar to the ban on cigarette sales to minors—could have more of an impact. That's a move that's also supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Halpern says restrictions on teen tanning can't come a moment too soon. "The ultraviolet rays we're exposed to when we're younger appear to be riskier," he says. "But the bigger issue is that those who start tanning young have a longer exposure to this radiation," which raises the risk of cancer later on. And, yes, tanning also ages the skin prematurely, causing age spots, saggy skin, and wrinkles years before your time. (A little natural sunlight, however, does confer some health benefits, and Halpern says people shouldn't curtail their time in the sun outdoors, provided they lather on the sunscreen.)
The World Health Organization last July added tanning beds to its list of carcinogens, putting them in the same category as radon and tobacco smoke. And the health reform bill includes a 10 percent "sin" tax on the use of tanning beds to try to discourage the habit. But the FDA, until now, hasn't taken any action to reduce the practice. It classifies tanning beds as a "class I" medical device subject to scant regulations and little oversight, on par with tongue depressors and elastic bandages. This, of course, enrages the Skin Cancer Foundation, which issued a statement yesterday recommending that tanning beds be reclassified as "class II" devices, akin to X-ray machines and infusion pumps. That would ensure that they're are manufactured and labeled appropriately in terms of their risks and that they're used only in licensed facilities subject to monitoring by the FDA.
The Indoor Tanning Association, "founded to protect the freedom of individuals to acquire a suntan," opposes the new tax and proposed restrictions, of course. Its website maintains that it's far safer to tan indoors than burn in the sun and promotes tanning as beneficial psychologically and in boosting vitamin D.
In a perfect world, Halpern says, tanned faces would go out of fashion, and pale complexions would make a comeback. Barring that, he's not opposed to tanning creams and sprays for that sun-kissed look without the skin-cancer dangers.
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