Indoor Tanning Beds Up Skin Cancer Risk, Yet They’re Readily Available To Many American College Students

Tanning
Nearly half of the 125 top colleges and universities in the U.S. provide students with easily accessible tanning beds, despite health risks. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

If you’re fair-skinned and it’s winter time, you might gravitate toward the sunlamps in tanning beds to get your summer fix of heat, light, and unfortunately, dangerous UV radiation. Research has shown that indoor tanning could lead to a higher risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. But even in 2014, with plenty of evidence about the dangers of indoor tanning, colleges and universities across the nation continue to make tanning beds readily available to students on- and off-campus, according to a new study.

Published in JAMA Dermatology, the study discovered that 48 percent of the top 125 colleges and universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report in 2013 had indoor tanning beds either on campus or in off-campus housing. Of these schools, 14.5 percent allowed students to pay for tanning with campus cash cards. Midwestern schools in particular had the highest prevalence of tanning beds available on campus, at 26.9 percent, compared to about 12 percent of all the schools surveyed. Southern schools, meanwhile, had the highest prevalence of indoor tanning available in off-campus housing, at 67.6 percent.

“Indoor tanning is widespread among young adults in the United States despite evidence establishing it as a risk factor for skin cancer,” the authors, who were from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, wrote in the abstract. For example, Indiana University includes several tanning facilities on its list of places that students can use campus cash.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) states that exposure to UV radiation, whether it’s directly from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds, can increase the risk of skin cancer — especially melanoma. “Although some people think that a tan gives them a ‘healthy’ glow, any tan is a sign of skin damage,” said Sharon Miller, an FDA scientist and international expert on UV radiation and tanning, on the FDA's website. “A tan is the skin’s reaction to exposure to UV rays. Recognizing exposure to the rays as an ‘insult,’ the skin acts in self-defense by producing more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin. Over time, this damage will lead to prematurely aged skin and, in some cases, skin cancer.”

Some doctors and health experts even go so far as to state that tanning beds are just as bad as tobacco. So, if indoor tanning is so bad for you, why is it so prevalent among young Americans? Perhaps because the myth that tanning beds are “safer” still persists, though doctors are trying to expel that notion. “One of the myths of indoor tanning is that it provides a safe time,” Dr. Jennifer Ashton told ABC News. “If you speak to any skin expert, any dermatologist will tell you there is no such thing as a safe tan.” In addition, many young people might subscribe to the idea that fair-skinned individuals would be more beautiful if they had darker skin.

The authors of the study ultimately state that tanning should be treated the same as tobacco or alcohol on college campuses. Though not completely banned, it shouldn’t be made readily available to students.

“The presence of indoor tanning facilities on and near college campuses may passively reinforce indoor tanning in college students, thereby facilitating behavior that will increase their risk for skin cancer both in the short term and later in life,” the authors wrote, according to the press release. “In step with tobacco-free policies, tanning-free policies on college campuses may have high potential to reduce skin cancer risk in young adults.”

Source: Pagoto S, Lemon S, Oleski J, Scully J, Olendzki F, Evans M. Availability of Tanning Beds on US College Campuses. JAMA Dermatology. 2014.

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