MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) Indoor tanning is a significant contributor to the U.S. skin cancer epidemic and represents a 100% preventable source of exposure to these cancers. Understanding exactly who is using indoor tanning – and why – can provide insight and leverage to help change behavior, according to Cindy Firkins Smith, MD , adjunct professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Dr. Smith noted that the typical indoor tanning bed user is female and between 17 and 30 years old. Other aspects of her lifestyle may be unhealthy; for example, she may smoke cigarettes, have an unhealthy pattern of alcohol consumption, and make unhealthy food choices (Cancer Causes Control 2006 June. doi:10.1007/s10552-005-0453-9 ). She also is likely to watch beauty-focused reality TV shows (J Am Acad Dermatol 2013 May. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2012.09.055) and is likely to objectify her own body, seeing it as something to be viewed and judged (Arch Dermatol 2009 Sep 1. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2009.190 ).

Tanning is a behavior that provides relaxation and positive emotions, and she receives support for this behavior from family and friends. “Tanning often starts with mom, which is one reason that parental permission legislation doesn’t work,” she said at the annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.

Dr. Smith said that up to 30 million people tan indoors every year. Rates of tanning for teenage girls are very high: up to 40% of American teenagers use indoor tanning, and 20%-30% of all 18- to 29-year-olds have used a tanning bed in the previous year (Jama Dermatol 2014 April doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.6896).

The ubiquity of tanning salons contributes to the problem, said Dr. Smith. “More is not better; in the largest U.S. cities, tanning salons outnumber [both] Starbucks and McDonald’s,” she said, noting that studies have shown that both proximity to tanning salons and the low cost of tanning encourage their use ( Am J Prev Med. 2009 Mar 36[3]:243-6) .

A 2015 study surveyed 125 colleges, finding that 48% had indoor tanning facilities in their campus or off-campus housing. College cash cards were acceptable payment at 14.4% of colleges, and 96% of off-campus housing facilities that offered tanning provided it as a free “perk” to residents (JAMA Dermatol 2015 Jan. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2014.3590 ).

Further, some data suggest that tanning really can be addictive for some patients. Ultraviolet light exposure has been shown to “light up” pleasure centers in PET-CT studies, and some frequent tanners report relaxation and pleasure from tanning as well as craving and feelings of withdrawal when they miss sessions. Dr. Smith said she does not hesitate to refer teen patients to mental health providers if there are concerns about mood and depression.

Having an understanding of patient motivations to tan can help in getting patients to take steps toward change, said Dr. Smith. “What can we do? We can actually do a lot. We have a lot more influence than we think we do.”

At the level of the individual patient, just opening up a conversation can make a big difference. “We assume we know why teenagers go to a tanning booth. But do we? When you notice a young woman who’s been to a tanning booth, ask why,” using a nonjudgmental approach to begin a dialogue about the near-term and long-term dangers of tanning. A positive approach is key, noted Dr. Smith. “Focusing on the benefits of avoiding UV tanning is more effective than a heavy reliance on scare tactics,” she said. Also, “multiple interventions work better.”

Before-and-after photos of celebrities whose appearance has been affected by photoaging can be effective. Another tactic with a more positive spin is to share images of celebrities who have chosen not to tan and who celebrate their fair skin. These conversations are particularly important at prom time, peak tanning season for many young women, said Dr. Smith. She has a portfolio of photos showing fair-skinned women wearing high-contrast gowns, which she says are more flattering for pale skin than white or nude colors.

For patients who still want that tan look, “Tanning for reasons of appearance can be satisfied with sunless tanners,” said Dr. Smith. The most common ingredient in sunless tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which was approved in the 1970s for topical use. However, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in 2011 about spray tanning, noting that the “industry has not provided safety data to FDA in order for the agency to consider approving it for … ‘misting’ from tanning booths.” The FDA’s specific concern had to do with the unknown safety of ingestion, inhalation, and mucous membrane exposure that can result from spray tanning.

Moving to the legislative and policy level, change can be achieved when stakeholders band together to “ban the tan,” said Dr. Smith. “The best way to do it is with a village. It really takes a lot of people to do this.”

There are solid epidemiologic and economic reasons to focus on the skin cancer epidemic, said Dr. Smith. Skin cancer is now the most common cancer in the United States, and more new cases “are diagnosed each year than breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers combined,” she said. Of nonmelanoma skin cancers, 90% are thought to be UV-related, and “the vast majority of mutations found in melanoma are caused by UV radiation.”

Skin cancers cost the United States over $8 billion annually, and although promising new immunotherapies are extending the lives of those with melanoma, these treatments cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. “This type of treatment is unaffordable for our system,” said Dr. Smith.

Progress is being made, she said, despite industry opposition. Individual states have regulated or banned tanning for minors, and at the federal level, tanning beds are now considered by the FDA to be Class II (moderate-risk) medical devices, a step up from their previous classification as the lowest-risk Class I devices, “The same as a tongue blade,” she said.

Dr. Smith had no relevant financial disclosures.

On Twitter @karioakes


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