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Despite study, dedicated tanners still want their glow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2009 - A new health report has some tanning enthusiasts yawning, while others can feel their skin crawling.

The article, released recently by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, reclassified tanning beds as carcinogenic to humans. The new classification places the UV-emitting devices in the same category as gamma radiation and cigarettes.

The team of 20 scientists from nine countries determined that all types of ultraviolet radiation could cause cancer. Previous studies had considered UV-B as the most dangerous, and some tanning salons claimed that their beds were safe because they relied on UV-A.

"Really, it's not unusual," said Todd Beckman of the report. Beckman, founder and CEO of the Tan Company, said, "These accusations about tanning beds have been going on since I've been in the business." 

Beckman entered the industry in the 1980s, when he added tanning beds to a franchised hair salon. In 1994, he launched the Tan Company in St. Louis. It now has 70 locations across the country.

Beckman blamed the repeated accusations against tanning beds on rivals in cosmetics. "There's really no way for our small industry to compete with that huge industry, which pushes all types of publicity through doctors," he said. He believed that cosmetics stands to benefit from warnings against tanning because such warnings may convince consumers to buy products like sunscreen and self-tanning sprays and creams.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Lynn Cornelius, chief of dermatology at Washington University in St. Louis, who felt vindicated by the report. "Basically, it's what we have been suspecting all along," she said.

Cornelius long has harbored concerns about the dangers of tanning beds; she supported legislation that would have restricted their use in Missouri. 

Convened in June, the WHO committee analyzed all the relevant literature, allowing it to reach new conclusions. Among these is the fact that the risk of cutaneous melanoma, which Cornelius called "the most serious form of skin cancer," jumps by 75 percent in people who use tanning beds before the age of 30.

Cornelius corroborated this statistic. "I see many patients in their 20s and 30s, mostly women, who actually have a diagnosis of melanoma," she explained.


Tanners Emily Spalding and Kate MacMahill hoped not to join their ranks.

"I usually go for a full week every two months" in the winter, Spalding said. A lacrosse player at Fontbonne University, Spalding tries to avoid the "hideous tan lines" that threaten to appear during the spring sports season. She also likes the way tanning beds make her skin look. "Not only does it give me a nice glow, but it also helps with acne," she explained.

When informed of the WHO report, Spalding was unsettled but not surprised. "It's a scary thought," she said. At the same time, "I've heard it was bad for me since the day I started." She has tried to mitigate tanning's damaging effects by using lotions.

"Most salons require that you use lotions to protect your skin," continued MacMahill. She speculated that previous health warnings had not been effective because they did not portray UV rays as lethal. "When I first started tanning, I thought of (skin cancer) as just a spot that you can get removed and don't have to worry about after that."

In light of the new report, MacMahill perceived tanning as potentially dangerous. "I know I'm putting myself at risk," she said.

Beckman highlighted his company's efforts to protect its clients. "We really promote moderation in tanning," he said. "We don't let people overexpose and we don't let people come in and tan over and over."

He also pointed to the benefits of UV rays. "We actually have to have ultraviolet light in order to survive; that's how we get vitamin D in our systems."

But both Spalding and MacMahill hoped that others would stay away from tanning. "Especially for new tanners, it would be easier for them not to start than for the veterans to stop," said Spalding.

Beyond raising awareness about the potential dangers of using tanning beds, Cornelius believed that passing legislation might be the most effective way to protect teens. "There has to be some restriction placed on [adolescents], whether it's parental consent or actually not having them use tanning beds," she said. On the other hand, "adults have to make up their minds on understanding the risk and taking it anyway."

For Spalding, it will be a hard choice to make. "It's having a little bit of summer all year long," she explained. "It's almost like an addiction."

The A-B-C-D-E's of Melanoma

Regardless of its cause, that new dark spot on your skin might be melanoma. Here are five warning signs.

Asymmetrical: The spot cannot be divided into four equally sized quadrants.

Border irregularity: The spot has uneven or notched borders.

Color variation: The spot does not have a single even color; it might be dark, white, brown, and/or black.

Diameter: The spot should not exceed 6 millimeters in diameter (although melanomas can be smaller.)

Evolution: The spot should not noticeably change in appearance or size.

You can do your own skin exam, but if you find anything that concerns you, consult a doctor.

Joe Milner, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Brown University.

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