College kids go out on Friday nights, have a few drinks, and decide they need a cigarette.
Many of them have seen the ads that show people with no teeth, or no voice box. They have seen the statistics that say cigarette smoking causes 443,000 deaths per year. They have been told that cigarettes can cause cancer, but still smoke.
What they might not know is that they added damage to their bodies when they used a tanning bed earlier that day to get some color for that night out. They don’t know because they are not bombarded by the kinds of ads they see about cigarette smoking.
Yet, the International Agency for Research of Cancer has classified tanning beds as a Class 1 carcinogen, putting them in the same class of cancer-causing agents as cigarettes.
The lack of attention to the health dangers young people risk in tanning beds is part of the driving force behind moves in the Iowa Legislature to regulate tanning bed use. A House bill that could ban tanning for minors in Iowa was introduced in January and passed the House Human Resources Committee on Feb. 17. A Senate bill with the restriction was filed, too. [Editor’s update: The proposed legislation was working its way through the legislature under a House bill, H.F. 420, that emerged from the two earlier study bills. 3/7/15]
Eleven states have laws that ban the use of ultraviolet tanning beds by anyone under the age of 18. Iowa has no law regarding the use of tanning beds by minors.
Young people tan for a variety of reasons. One is that they feel pressure to fit in with their peers. Society constantly bombards teenagers with messages about their physical appearance through the Internet, TV, magazines, their friends and even their parents.
“Young people who are still developing their identities are especially vulnerable to ‘fitting in’—their self-acceptance is highly reliant on being seen as part of a group,” Alison Bianchi, associate professor of sociology and director of the University of Iowa’s Center for the Study of Group Processes, said. “Without this feeling of fitting in, most young people lose their sense of self-worth.”
Part of fitting in can be going to tanning booths. Young people see friends doing it, so they do it, too.
“There is no safe amount of tanning bed use; any little bit causes damage,” Dr. Hillary Johnson, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Iowa, said. “A sun tan on your skin is a sign that your body’s cells are trying to protect themselves.”
The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, but also the easiest to prevent. This makes dermatologists wonder why it is on the rise.
“Ten minutes in a tanning bed could be like spending 10 hours on a Mediterranean beach,” Dr. Molly Moye, a resident dermatologist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said.
Easy access to tanning beds, especially in college towns where young customers exist, are a big part of the increase in tanning.
DIFFERENT LEVELS OF CANCER DANGER
Three types of skin cancer exist, all with various degrees of danger.
One, basal cell carcinoma, is not deadly. It simply is inconvenient because it must be removed surgically, Moye said. Another type is squamous cell carcinoma, which can metastasize, or grow, if left untreated, and this can be deadly.
The third type is melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. It must be caught early in order to be treated successfully. The American Cancer Society reports that melanoma rates have been rising for 30 years, and estimated that at least 76,100 new cases were diagnosed in 2014. The five-year survival rate for melanoma is only 15 percent to 20 percent.
Even with these scary facts, young people continue to tan.
“I started tanning because I hate being pale and I hate the cold so it would be my little getaway for 15 minutes. It made my skin look and feel better,” Kenzi Cunanan, a 20-year-old University of Iowa sophomore from Normal, Illinois, said. Cunanan, studying for a major in pre-nursing, started tanning when she was 17 and tanned throughout high school.
Bianchi said teenagers are known for doing things that give them reassurance they are fitting in with society, and part of that means putting their health at risk by tanning.
The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that starting young increases the risk for cancer.
“Those who practice indoor tanning have a 74 x increased risk of developing melanoma than those who have not practiced indoor tanning.” Dr. Brian Swick, a dermatologist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, wrote in an email. “This is especially true for those who have a history of indoor tanning early in life.”
Bridget Stevens, 22, a senior at the University of Iowa from Rockford, Illinois, studying psychology, said she has felt pressure about her looks since high school, from peers who teased her because she was fair-skinned.
“I do currently tan every once in a while for special occasions, but not on a regular basis due to the high expense,” Stevens said. “Tanning gives me a lot of confidence. I feel better in clothing or colors that I normally can’t wear with my skin coloring and I overall feel so much happier in my own skin.”
Moye has heard several similar stories. “Young people in particular are notorious for doing things that give them a short-term benefit without thinking about the long-term consequences,” she said.
A 2011 study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found tanning beds are known to stimulate the area of the brain related to reward. This rush of feel-good chemicals can lead to addiction, the study’s authors wrote.
In Iowa, Johnson said, “It can produce a sense of euphoria, similar to opiate drugs. Rather than a cultural obsession, it could be a larger issue if the body is getting mood reward from the tanning bed experience that is difficult to deal with when taken away.”
Mackenzie Peers, 21, a University of Iowa junior from Waukee, said she started tanning in the eighth grade, which she now admits was a horrible idea. Peers, studying for a major in communication studies, formerly worked at a tanning salon. While there, she said, she saw “a lot of people get skin cancer or potentially cancerous moles, but they could not stop because they were addicted to tanning.”
Efforts to interview several tanning salon operators in the Iowa City area, where the University of Iowa is located, were unsuccessful. All but one declined to be interviewed and the one initially willing to talk declined to do so for this story.
Johnson recommended knowing your own skin. For example, she encouraged using the ABCDE’s to determine if a mole is potentially cancerous. A stands for asymmetrical, B for border, C means color, D is diameter, and E means evolving. Tracking these can help someone detect cancer early.
BATTLING MYTHS, FINDING SOLUTIONS
Some people justify their addiction to tanning beds by claiming that the beds are a good source of Vitamin D. Unfortunately for them, this is a myth.
Two types of ultraviolet light filter through the ozone layer: ultraviolet light A and ultraviolet light B. Our bodies use UVB light to make Vitamin D, and tanning beds mainly emit UVA light, Moye said, eliminating tanning beds as a source of Vitamin D.
Her recommendation for Vitamin D is to take supplements.
Moye added that everyone should wear sunscreen every day—no matter the time of year, the weather or a person’s skin color. Ultraviolet light can filter through the clouds, even in the winter, she said.
Moye said she hopes tanning is a trend. She said young people could be more educated about the dangers of tanning if the tanning bed industry did not have a huge political lobby.
Bianchi put it this way: “If I could convince one person that their self-worth is more about what’s between her ears rather than what’s on her face, I would feel a lot better.”
This IowaWatch story was published by The Des Moines Register, Council Bluffs Nonpareil, Mason City Globe Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Times Herald website in Port Huron, Michigan, under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.