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Tanning Myths: What's True, What's Hype?

Before you head out to the beach or indoors to tan, test your tanning savvy.

WebMD Feature

Beach season is here, and the great summertime tanning debate is heating up once again.

Is tanning really so bad for us? What's wrong with wanting to get a little color? And if we're too busy to sunbathe outdoors, what harm could a few sessions in a tanning salon do?

This year, there's a new wrinkle in the tanning debate. Even before spring break, the Indoor Tanning Association launched an aggressive campaign with full-page advertisements in major newspapers. Among other claims, the campaign contends that the link between tanning and melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is hype. In response, two melanoma research organizations have issued a strong warning about the harmful effects of tanning.

With these two giants battling it out, the consumer may be left confused. What's true and what's spin?

Here, test your savvy on tanning myths:

True or False? Indoor Tanning Doesn't Cause Melanoma

False.

The indoor tanning industry contends otherwise, saying in some ads that the link is "hype" and not proven.

"There are a lot of studies out there and a lot of conflicting evidence about what causes melanoma," says John Overstreet, the executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association in Washington, D.C., an industry trade group. "There are many factors involved with melanoma skin cancer," he says, adding that heredity is a major factor. For those with a family history of melanoma, he says, "we would certainly advise you not to tan indoors."

"You constantly hear indoor tanning causes melanoma," he says. "'Causes' means, if you do it, you have [melanoma]. Many millions of people do this [indoor tanning] and don't get skin cancer."

But researchers say that the link between ultraviolet exposure from the sun or tanning beds and melanoma is indisputable, counters David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, chairman of dermatology and director of the melanoma program at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

"There is no question that ultraviolet exposure is associated with an increased risk of melanoma," says Fisher, who is also the president of the Society for Melanoma Research. That group, along with the Melanoma Research Foundation, issued the strong anti-tanning statement.

Fisher points to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer in March 2007 that reviewed 19 published studies on the association of tanning beds and skin cancers. They found use of the tanning beds before age 35 boosted the risk of melanoma by 75%.

As for Overstreet's contention that most melanoma is associated with a family history, not so, says Fisher. "The vast majority are what we call sporadic melanomas."

"Most of the remaining risk factors [besides hereditary] are related to UV exposure," he says, such as being fair-skinned, not tanning easily, being a redhead who freckles easily, and having a history of blistering childhood sunburns.

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