Tanning Teenager

by drnieman on June 4, 2011

in Monthly

Q: My 17 year old teenager says she is frustrated by the lack of sunshine this past spring. She wants to go to a tanning salon to get rid of her pale skin. Her friends are all “healthy looking” and tanned in preparation for their prom. I am confused by the conflicting advice I get from doctors and the tanning salon staff who I find very helpful?

A: It is not uncommon that during this rainy time of the year teenagers get upset with their pale, pasty appearances. Tanning salons see an increase in customers as a result.

It is reported that one in 4 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 used a tanning salon at least once. Girls tend to outnumber boys. A girl is also more likely to visit the tanning salon if her mother uses it.

In Alberta there is no current legislation that bans tanning if you are under the age of 18 years. However in Nova Scotia, New Bruinswick and in the lower Vancouver Island area, teens under the age of 18 may find it hard to get admission into a tanning salon. In France and Germany teens are banned from salons. In the USA, 30 states have either banned the practice or insisted on parental supervision or consent. In some state taxes are added at salons hoping that it may discourage users or reduce the number of visits.

Currently all over North America there is an ongoing movement to ban tanning indoors under the age of 18. Cancer societies, dermatologists, pediatricians and organizations such as Health Canada and the FDA all have advocated for such legislation. Medical associations in various provinces also joined in or are in the process of doing that.

The number one concern regarding the safety of indoor tanning is the increased risk for skin cancer. Of the top three kinds of skin cancer, malignant melanomas are the most deadly. The overall incidence of melanomas has increased over the past decade and currently it is estimated that 15.2 per 100, 000 Canadians will get melanomas. In 2009, five thousand Canadians were diagnosed and 1, 000 died. Other skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

The risk for melanomas increases by 75% when excessive sun exposure took place before the age of 30 years.

Some people are more at risk for developing skin cancer when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. These are people with light skin, freckles, moles and red hair.

Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) comes in rays with different wave lengths. The main focus is on UVA and UVB. The skin produces melanin when exposed to UVR. This darkens the skin. UVA has a more immediate effect (tanning takes place quicker) The UVR which causes burning of the skin is UVB. Over time, the continued skin damage may lead to DNA damage.

With repeated exposure to UVR, the skin not only becomes more prone to cancer but also to wrinkles, sagging and dryness.

In the journal Lancet Oncology, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, placed the carcinogenic risk of indoor tanning equal to exposure to cigarettes and asbestos.

The current battle between healthcare experts and the tanning industry reminds many of the past battles against cigarette companies. (The government told the public cigarettes cause cancer and industry called it absurd and unfounded, demanding  more research)

 The Canadian Tanning Association has continued to defend the safety of indoor tanning, an industry which in North America generates $5Billion per year.

The factors that always get debated are the intensity of the UVR used by tanning salons and the type of UVR. For example in the past UVA rays were used at a higher intensity in order to get a more efficient and faster tan. The Cancer Society informs us that the rays in some tanning salons are 5 times stronger than the midday sun.

Although skin cancer dominates the conversation as to the possible dangers of indoor tanning, there is also a mental health aspect to consider. Preliminary research suggests that one can actually be addicted to tanning. Exposure to UVR can lead to a release of endorphins by the brain. This makes a person feel happy, relaxed and calm—feelings many stressed out teens will find attractive.

When proponents of indoor tanning talk about the benefits of getting Vitamin D from using tanning salons, other experts counter that claim by saying one can get Vitamin D via supplements and foods instead. If Vit D supplements are used make sure it is Vitamin D3. According to the Institute of Medicine the daily dose must not be higher than 4,000 IU in adults or older teenagers.

If your teen were to rely on sunshine instead of indoor tanning to get vitamin D, remember that sunscreens will reduce the Vit D production via the skin. My advice is to first get 20 minutes of sun exposure and then apply the sunscreen. The 20 minute limit may be hard to enforce for a teenager who wants to be tanned for an upcoming prom!

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