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The great tanning debate

? Users, doctors, industry weigh in

April 10, 2010
By KIM LOCCISANO, For The Times Leader and PATRICIA GRAHAM T-L Lifestyles Editor

Many equate good health with a golden glow but there is disagreement among those who use tanning beds, the tanning industry and the medical community on just what price must be paid when indulging society's passion for sporting a tanned appearance, even in the face of substantial increases in the number of skin cancer cases being diagnosed in recent years.

Dr. Jondavid Pollock, a radiation oncologist at Wheeling Hospital's Schiffler Cancer Center, sees the dangers of tanning, particularly from indoor tanning technology, from the point of view as both a medical professional and as a parent.

Pollock believes the real danger from tanning of any sort other than spray-on type products - is the long-term damage done during a person's youth. This damage does not necessarily readily reveal the damage done to the skin itself until years later when, as an adult, the likelihood that they will develop skin cancer is dramatically increased because of exposure to UV light experienced as a child, teen or even during college years.

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"We are increasingly seeing skin cancers occurring in patients who are age fifty and older that are the result of a sunburn, of toxic exposure to the sun, when they were in their pre-teen or teenage years," he said.

Particularly troublesome to the medical community is the increase seen in the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma.

He disagrees with the opinion that those who use tanning beds do not get burned.

Pollock also noted that those who use tanning beds rarely put on sun block, despite uniform sustained exposure to the U.V. rays while in the tanning bed.

"When you are on a beach or in the outdoors the level of exposure a person experiences is not consistent, thanks to wind, c loud cover and other aspects of weather, " offered Pollock, noting that when in the outdoors people trying to avoid burns are likely to wear sunblock. He does not believe tanning bed users generally apply sunscreen.

He supports the medical community's position that there is no safe level of UV exposure for those using tanning beds.

The tanning industry disagrees with that position, pointing to in-shop record keeping of tanning session times and frequency of visit guidelines they follow on behalf of their customers in the effort to assure they are able to develop a tan by "layers."

Although those looking solely at the science of the indoor tanning process say it generally does not offer anything beneficial to consumers in the way of improving their physical health, it is something people appreciate for the resulting visual effect: the aesthetic value of their tan.

The position being taken by many medical professionals worldwide reflects a widespread documented increase in skin cancer cases being seen as the indoor tanning industry has steadily expanded its reach in recent decades.

America's medical professionals who specialize in treating and researching cancer and cancer related issues in general say they understand the desire to look beautiful, but rarely waiver on the danger this indulgence brings for a person's future level of health regardless how good they believe their tan makes them look in their eyes.

Using a tanning bed is an activity Serena Williams of Martins Ferry says makes her feel better.

"I feel better about myself when I'm tan," said the 46-year-old mother. "It's funny but you feel thinner when you're tan. Plus, I don't have to put make-up when my face is tan and I have color in it."

Williams said she starts going to the tanning bed in the beginning of March, usually every day for the first 10 days. She then visits the bed two or three times a week until the end of May.

"I like to have a base tan and don't want to burn when I get in the actual sunshine. I don't go all summer because I am usually outside in the sun then," she said, noting she has been using tanning beds "off and on" for the past decade.

Despite her use of tanning beds, Williams said she is afraid of possibly getting cancer from constant exposure to dangerous rays.

"It enters my mind every time I get into a tanning bed," she said. "It scares me to think I am taking that risk but I still do it."

Williams noted she did stop tanning for a period of time after finding a suspicious spot on her skin.

"It turned out to be nothing but is did scare me and I stopped tanning for a while," she said.

While fair-skinned Williams worries about cancer she does let her daughter, who is now a senior in high school, go to the tanning bed.

"At first I wouldn't let her go but then I let her tan a little when she entered high school but only for homecoming dances so she could get some color," she said, noting her daughter has some olive pigments in her skin and didn't require many sessions to get the desired effect. "She went through a period when she wanted to tan all the time but not so much any more. She really doesn't need to do it."

Just as with herself, Williams does worry about her daughter and any skin damage the tanning beds could be causing.

"It was a very, very difficult decision to let her go to the tanning beds that first time. I had to think about it for a long time," she said. "I do worry about skin damage and am constantly telling her to make sure her face is covered and her hair is protected."

The indoor tanning industry is regulated nationally by the Food and Drug Administration and in Ohio by the State Board of Cosmetology.

While it is a regulated industry in the United States, recently pressures have been mounting nationally and even internationally, which are designed to substantially limit access teens can have to the UV light sources used in these machines.

There seems to be little or no middle ground when it comes to official proposals being acted on by some state legislatures asked to take a position on whether or not to exclude the use of tanning beds by teens unless they have a medical condition which improves with specific exposures to ultraviolet light, and a current prescription for that treatment.

It is a question tanning salon operators such as Shirley Murad of Chapter Square Tanning in Lansing believe is largely unnecessary as guidelines about basic exposure times and visits are in place currently and are designed to prevent over use.

Pollock supports efforts to restrict teen use of tanning beds in the hope that an adjustment in the level of UV exposure will ultimately result in seeing the number of cancers reverse and begin to decline.

The simple truth is millions of Americans simply do not consider themselves fully prepared to face the world, unless they have had a chance to "get a little color" and that generally means getting a tan. The problem is not just one founded on the science of the issue but one tied tightly to the idea perpetuated by society that a tan is always beautiful and represents good health.

Loccisano can be reached at kimfromt

Graham can be reached at



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