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Teens Risk Health But Not Appearance By Tanning

Teen Indoor Tanning

The news earlier this summer of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) re-categorized indoor tanning devices as carcinogenic to humans will most likely have minimal effect on teenagers who are more concerned with being attractive than with their chances of developing melanoma. People are more willing to risk their health than their appearance by tanning.

After reviewing the medical literature, experts at IARC, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization, concluded the risk of melanoma skin cancer jumps by 75 percent when people start using tanning beds before age 30.

IARC experts have moved tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation into the top cancer risk category, deeming both to be as deadly as arsenic and mustard gas. The new classification also puts them in the list of definite causes of cancer, alongside tobacco, the hepatitis B virus and chimney sweeping, among others.

Mark Leary, Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Duke’s social psychology program, has studied the motivations of people who tan despite knowing the health risks. He notes, “Our studies found that social motives -- being attractive, making positive impressions and being evaluated favorably -- trumped concerns with health by a large margin. The most ‘tan-insatiable’ people were those who placed a high value on their appearance and had mild characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder. These people continued to work on their tans even though they were already as dark as they could ever become.”

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Leary and colleagues performed an experiment in which they presented young adults with one of two articles warning against excessive tanning. One article described the health risks (cancer), and the other described the appearance risks (premature aging, leathery skin, scarring). They found the article saying that tanning might make you look bad had significantly more effect in changing attitudes toward tanning than the one warning of skin cancer.

This year, more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. It is estimated that there will be about 121,840 new cases of melanoma in 2009. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for adolescents and young adults 15-29 years old. Rather than telling teens and young adults their cancer risks, perhaps we should stress how old the tanning will make their skin look, how quickly it will cause their skin to “wrinkle, become leathery.”

For safety purposes, indoor tanning beds are best avoided. No minor should be permitted to use the tanning devices.

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American Academy of Dermatologists
International Agency for Research on Cancer
World Health Organization
Lancet Oncology