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Tanning Salons Boost Skin Cancer Risk

Study Shows Monthly Use Raises Melanoma Risk by 55%
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 16, 2003 -- There's more evidence on the hazards of tanning beds. Baking under their artificial lamps as little as once a month can boost your risk of a deadly form of skin cancer by 55% -- and the danger is even greater when done in early adulthood.

A new study involving more than 106,000 Scandinavian women shows what its researchers say is the strongest evidence to date that artificial tanning can cause malignant melanoma.

Past research shows tanning beds raise risk of other types of skin cancer. Last year, Dartmouth researchers reported that people who ever visited a tanning salon were 2½ times more likely to later get squamous cell skin cancer and 1½ times more likely to develop basal cell skin than those who didn't.

When malignant melanoma is detected in its earliest stages, surgical removal cures the cancer in most cases. If the disease spreads survival at 5 years after the diagnosis is only about 30% to 40%. There are a number of factors that increase the risk of melanoma -- a family history, prominent or unusual moles; overexposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight is believed to contribute to melanoma in some cases.

For this study, published this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the Swedish and Norwegian women completed detailed questionnaires in 1991 and 1992 about personal characteristics such as their hair and eye color, the number of moles on their body, and their histories of sunburn and tanning patterns -- whether under natural sunlight or in tanning salons. Researchers tracked their rates of melanoma eight years later and found 187 cases of melanoma.

They find that eye color was not associated with increased risk. "We also found no statistically significant association between tanning of the skin after heavy or repeated sun exposure and the risk of melanoma," write researcher Marit Veierod and colleagues.

But no matter the women's age or hair color -- considered by some to be predictors of later melanoma risk -- the researcher say that women who visited a tanning parlor at least once a month were 55% more likely to later develop melanoma than women who didn't artificially suntan. Those who used sun lamps to tan while in their 20s had the greatest later risk, about 150% higher than similarly aged women who shunned tanning beds.

The risk from melanoma from sun exposure was four times greater in red-haired women, who are typically fair-skinned compared with women with dark brown or black hair. Blondes had twice the risk compared with women with brown or black hair.

These new findings are important, because it's hard to study what specific factors increases the risks of melanoma and other types of skin cancer. Because mice don't get these forms, researchers must rely on these types of population studies that track lifestyle habits and later disease rates, says James Spencer, MD, spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology and vice chairman of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He was not involved in this study.

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