One American dies from melanoma every hour. Yet, this deadliest form of skin cancer is highly preventable with proper avoidance and protection from ultraviolet radiation, the No. 1 risk factor for skin cancer. If melanoma and other skin cancers are so preventable, why does melanoma remain the most common cancer in women aged 25-29 and the leading cause of cancer death in women aged 25-30 years old?
Thirty million people use indoor tanning devices annually, and 2.3 million of them are teenagers. Many people believe that tanning, either in the sun or in tanning beds, is safe and even healthy. In fact, the tanning industry leads the public to believe that tanning provides health benefits. In a 2012, a Congressional report revealed that the tanning industry purported misleading information such as denying the known risks of indoor tanning, falsely claiming that tanning is beneficial to a young person’s health, and targeting teenage girls in their advertisements.
There are 70,000 new melanomas diagnosed in the United States every year. Nearly 4,000 cases of melanoma were diagnosed in Texas in 2013. Research has shown that just one indoor tanning session increases a user’s chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent, and that each additional session in that year increases the risk by 2 percent. People who start tanning before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent.
Over the last few years, major health organizations have begun raising awareness about the harmful effects of tanning. The World Health Organization has labeled ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds as carcinogenic to humans, raising its risk level to that of cigarettes. The Center for Disease Control has led a campaign to defuse myths about skin cancer, endorsing that tanned skin is not healthy.
In May 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised the classification of tanning beds to require stricter regulations to safeguard public health. It also recommended against the use of tanning beds by minors under the age of 18. Tanning bed manufacturers will now be required to inform customers clearly about the risks of tanning beds, warn users to get screened regularly for skin cancer, and alert users that tanning is not recommended for minors under 18 years old.
Texas has truly been a leader in protecting the public from the risks of tanning. In March 2013, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill prohibiting minors under the age of 18 from using indoor tanning salons. Texas became the fifth state to ban tanning for minors.
A recent study showed that these efforts by legislators and public health officials have made a difference. From 2009 to 2013, there has been a decrease in the percentage of teenage girls who tan from 25 percent to 20 percent. This still leaves about 1.5 million teens who tan regularly, so there is still much work to do.
While dermatologists continue to push for more improvement, it is also important to remember that simple daily protective measures can protect you from skin cancer. It is important to seek shade during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm, wear sun-protective clothing such as long sleeve shirts and wide-brimmed hats, and use broad-spectrum sunscreen daily with frequent reapplication.
Americans can expect to see more effective sunscreen ingredients in the near future, as Congress just passed the Sunscreen Innovation Act, which will allow the approval of new sunscreens quickly that have been available outside the United States for years.
Dr. Srivastava is a Dallas dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.