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Indoor Tanning: The Risks of Ultraviolet Rays

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In an NCI-sponsored study published in September 2009 in the Archives of Dermatology, the study researchers hired and trained college students to pose as 15-year-old, fair-skinned girls who had never tanned before. By telephone, the students asked more than 3,600 tanning facilities in all 50 states about their practices.

Less than 11 percent of the facilities followed FDA’s recommended exposure schedule of three or fewer sessions the first week. About 71 percent said they would allow a teen to tan all seven days the first week, and many promoted frequent tanning with “unlimited tanning” discount price packages.

About 87 percent of the facilities required parental consent, leading the researchers to conclude that “many parents are allowing their teens to tan and are providing written consent or accompaniment.”

“Parents should carefully consider the risks before allowing their children under 18 to tan,” says Miller.

FDA Regulation

FDA regulates radiation-emitting products, including sunlamps and products that contain them, such as tanning beds and booths and portable home units. Manufacturers of sunlamps must comply with FDA regulations, including the performance standard for sunlamp products.

In a December 2008 Report to Congress, FDA noted that FDA/NCI studies found that the UV exposures typically provided by sunlamp products are excessive, and that comparable cosmetic effects can be produced with exposures that are only one-third or even one-fourth the levels currently used. FDA is evaluating the results of this research and considering whether those results warrant changes to its performance standard for sunlamp products.

FDA held an advisory committee meeting in March 2010 to seek independent, professional expertise and advice on regulatory issues related to tanning devices. At this public meeting, the agency heard many suggestions from health professionals, scientists, tanning industry representatives, and consumers. Based on the recommendations of the advisory committee and FDA’s own studies, the agency is considering revising some requirements for tanning beds, including strengthening the warning labels to make consumers more aware of the risks.

The Riskiest Practices

FDA, NCI, the American Academy of Dermatology, and other health organizations advise limiting exposure to natural UV radiation from the sun and avoiding artificial UV sources such as tanning beds entirely.

All use of tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer. Certain practices are especially dangerous. These include:

  • Failing to wear the goggles provided, which can lead to short- and long-term eye injury.
  • Starting with long exposures (close to the maximum time for the particular tanning bed), which can lead to burning. Because sunburn takes 6 to 48 hours to develop, you may not realize your skin is burned until it’s too late.
  • Failing to follow manufacturer-recommended exposure times on the label for your skin type.
  • Tanning while using certain medications or cosmetics that may make you more sensitive to UV rays. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist first.

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