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That Golden Tan Can Be Deadly, No Matter How You Get It

WebMD Health News

June 6, 2001 -- More than one million people in the United States visit tanning salons each day, and many do so in the belief that it is safer to seek that golden tan indoors than out. It is a message that the $2 billion-a-year indoor tanning industry promotes -- and medical groups abhor.

Now a new study offers the best evidence yet that ultraviolet exposure from tanning beds is just as dangerous as direct exposure to the sun. Researchers found that molecular changes linked to the deadly skin cancer melanoma routinely occur after a single indoor tanning session. The findings, reported in the May issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, add weight to the contention of most skin experts that tanning is unsafe, no matter how it is done.

"There is no such thing as a safe tan," dermatologist James M. Spencer, MD, tells WebMD. "Simply put, a tan is the body's response to DNA damage. When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet radiation, either through direct sun exposure or at a tanning salon, it produces a tan to prevent further damage. There can be no tan without the DNA damage."

Indoor tanning industry spokesman Joseph Levy acknowledges there is some skin injury associated with tanning, but added that those risks can be minimized when people "tan responsibly" and do not burn. He likens the debate over tanning to that over birth control, with most medical groups preaching complete abstinence while tanning advocates preach prevention.

"This study highlights the big difference in how we define skin injury," Levy tells WebMD. "They are saying you get the same injury tanning in a salon that you do in the sun. But the biggest discrepancy we have with the antitanning lobby is about the definition of damage. What they are calling damage is a breakdown in the DNA of the skin which occurs with any exposure to ultraviolet light. But the fact is, you need some level of ultraviolet exposure in order to survive and thrive." Levy is executive director of the Smart Tan Network, the leading trade organization for the tanning industry.

In the newly published study, reported by S. Elizabeth Whitmore, MD, and colleagues from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 11 volunteers received 10 full-body tanning salon treatments over a two-week period, with a portion of each participant's buttock covered to provide a control. During the final tanning session, one half of the covered area was uncovered to provide a single exposure sample.

Skin biopsies and blood samples were taken from the participants after the first and last tanning sessions to determine the molecular changes in the skin and the blood. Researchers found significant elevations in two molecular cancer markers in exposed areas of the skin compared with the covered areas.

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