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Indoor Tanning Beds Linked to Common Skin Cancers

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 2, 2012 -- Indoor tanning beds may raise the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers, especially among people who start tanning before they turn 25, a new study suggests.

Previous studies have linked indoor tanning with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. But the new study extends these findings to the more common but less serious skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Specifically, people who used tanning beds were 67% more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 29% more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma than people who never used them. This risk was highest among people who started to tan before their 25th birthday.

Researchers reviewed 12 studies in medical literature published since 1985. They estimate that indoor tanning is responsible for more than 170,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers in the United States each year -- and many more worldwide. 

“Although these types of skin cancers are not deadly, they are very common and expensive to treat,” says researcher Eleni Linos, MD, DrPH. She is an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. The study is published online in the journal BMJ.

So with all the bad press, why are people still going tanning? “People go to tanning beds because they like the feeling of the beds and like to look tan, and don’t understand the risks involved,” she says.

Is It Time to Ban the Tan?

It’s time to amp up prevention messages and measures in the U.S., Linos says. “Ideally, we’d like people to hear the message and make their own choices but at some point, especially when it comes to children and minors, regulation becomes important.”

As it stands, the World Health Organization states that ultraviolet tanning devices cause cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers indoor tanning a Class 1 carcinogen.

Ban-the-tan efforts that restrict tanning by minors are under way in many U.S. states and cities. Australia and Europe have banned tanning beds for children and teenagers, and Brazil has banned tanning beds for everyone.

In the U.S., “the next step is to figure out what measures are most effective at reducing indoor tanning use,” Linos says. “Placing restrictions on indoor smoking, taxes on cigarettes, and changing the perception of smokers as cool all helped reduce smoking rates. We need to figure out which of those methods will work for indoor tanning.”

The time is now, agrees Joshua Zeichner, MD, He is a dermatologist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “Any measures taken to discourage indoor tanning will help prevent cancers in the long run and lower associated health care costs,” he says.

The message is clear: “Especially for young people, who want to look tan for the prom or a special event, stay away from tanning booths.”

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