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Published on February 14, 2016

Feeling a bit pale? Tanning beds are NOT the answerFeeling a bit pale? Tanning beds are NOT the answer

In the middle of the winter, when the sun is at its weakest, the urge to hit the tanning booth for a a little extra color may be hard to resist, especially among younger people.

But medical researchers, health organizations and Cape Cod physicians all give the same advice:

Don’t do it!

The International Agency for Research on Cancer list tanning beds as a known carcinogen in 2009, leadng several states to ban tanning beds for minors. Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing a ban on indoor tanning for those under 18 in an attempt to reduce skin cancer in the United States.

“We know that all tanning is bad for you and young people’s skin is more sensitive to sun exposure so they should not ever use tanning booths,” said Peter Hopewood, MD, from Cape Cod Surgeons in Falmouth. “It’s more dangerous for young skin.”

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has been rising by 3 percent a year [pdf] for the past few decades, and many doctors and medical researchers believe tanning beds are to blame. Now there is evidence to back up those theories.

A new study published online by JAMA Dermatology on Jan. 27 found that women who receive a melanoma diagnosis under the age of 40 tanned earlier and more frequently than older women diagnosed with the disease.

The younger women younger began indoor tanning at a younger age than women aged 40 to 49 and reported more frequent sessions (100 versus 40). Those women were two to six times more likely to develop melanoma, the study found.

Tanning of any kind is also more dangerous for people with fair skin, redheads and people from countries like Denmark, Holland and Scotland whose skin is more susceptible to melanoma. African Americans are the least susceptible to melanoma, followed by Hispanics.

Melanoma rates are higher in northern states like Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, primarily because of populations of those states are predominantly Caucasian.

Melanoma risk is also high in coastal regions like Cape Cod. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Barnstable County and Nantucket have the highest rates of melanoma in Massachusetts, with 30 to 50 cases per 100,000 people.

Cape Codders should avoid tanning beds because they may already get too much natural sun, Dr. Hopewood said.

“You have sun exposure occupations like farming, you have water and fishing and then you have recreational things like swimming and the beach,” he said.

Despite the alarming new trends in melanoma, the cancer can take years to develop, typically showing up in people in their 60s and 70s, Dr. Hopewood said.

Use the ABCDE method to recognize a scary-looking mole that might indicate melanoma:

  • A is for asymmetry: Does half or more of a mole looks different from the other half?
  • B is for border irregularity: Is the mole a strange shape or raised, as opposed to a circle or oval?
  • C is for color changes: Most normal benign moles are brown. Consult your doctor for moles that are speckled gray, black or blue.
  • D is for diameter: The diameter of the mole shouldn’t be larger than the eraser head on a pencil.
  • E is for evolution: If the mole is changing, getting bigger or spreading, it’s not normal.

“It’s much easier to prevent something than to treat it,” Dr. Hopewood said. “Prevention is behavioral, making a lifestyle change. Saying ‘OK, I love the beach but it’s not OK for me to be out so much.’

“That doesn’t mean you can’t go to the beach. It just means you go when it’s safe. I also see a lot of brides-to-be tanning. An alternative for them would be would be spray-on tans.”

The American Academy of Dermatologists strongly opposes indoor tanning and sites numerous studies that show a 59 percent increase of melanoma for those exposed to the ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning.

If health fears aren’t enough to keep you away from tanning beds, maybe vanity will do it.

“You may think you look good now, but as you age you are going to have old, leathery skin,” Dr. Hopewood said. “You’re going to look a lot older. Nobody thinks about that when they’re 18, but it’s true.”

But for women who associate being tan with being more attractive, that’s a hard sell. Jerod Stapleton, a behavioral scientist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, created a web-based intervention tool that targets young female users of indoor tanning beds.

He then studied the effectiveness of the intervention on a group of 186 young women, with an average age of 20 and who had used a tanning bed at least 10 times in the previous year. The participants rated the intervention an 8.5 out of 10 in terms of being interesting, understandable, useful and positive. Eighty-one percent said they would recommend the intervention to a friend and more study participants than not said the intervention had caused them to not visit a tanning bed.

The web-based tool included twice-a-week text messages with tips to help frequent tanners change their behavior. The feedback from the study participants will be used to launch a larger-scale evaluation.