The Dark Truth

Many still go to tanning salons and sunbathe on beaches, despite the cancer risks

June 07, 2007|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Reporter

Jenny Hetrick knows that tanning increases the risk of skin cancer, but for two years she's been a regular customer at Electric Beach tanning salon in Odenton.

Warnings about exposure to ultraviolet light - from the sun and tanning lamps - are not lost on her. But when the weather warms up, she likes to wear shorts and short-sleeved tops and, like her friends, she wants to look good in them. So she compromises and limits her tanning salon visits to about two a week.

"I think it's right that people should be careful. For teenage girls, tanning can really be addictive," said Hetrick, 20, of Severn.

As this year's outdoor tanning season begins, dermatologists know that millions will ignore warnings about the risks of skin cancer from overexposure to UV light. And, while a decade of warnings has put a crimp in the tanning salon business, up to 30 million people still bronze themselves in booths and tanning beds each year.

The peak indoor months, industry officials say, are May and June, when tanning enthusiasts are getting ready for a summer outdoors. "We're a species that evolved in the sun," explained John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association.

But the fixation makes no sense to dermatologists.

"It's kind of like what happened with seat belts and cigarettes. People are recognizing the dangers, but for some individuals, it'll be years before they see the damage and it hits home," said Dr. John DiGiovanna, a dermatologist at the National Cancer Institute.

This year, there will be an estimated 108,230 new cases of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, and the disease will cause 8,110 deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. At least

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some of those deaths could have been prevented if people just stayed out of the sun, experts say.

"We have a huge amount of evidence, from many, many different types of studies and sources, showing the role of UV light in skin cancer," DiGiovanna said.

More than 20 states restrict the use of tanning salons by minors, requiring them to have parental consent or prohibiting use by minors altogether. In Maryland, Del. Anne Healey has sponsored legislation for the past two years to ban young children from tanning in salons altogether. She plans to sponsor similar legislation next year.

"I'm still thinking about what the best way is to go about this," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

Why do people slow-roast themselves in the sun for hours or pay for a place in what is essentially an enclosed warming tray?

"People tan because they're going to a wedding or on vacation, and they want to look good," said Robin Eason, who owns six SunSeeker salons in the Baltimore area. Most of her customers are women between 18 and 35, she said.

`Stress reliever'

Others say that tanning just feels good.

"This is my stress reliever. This is how I chill out," said Ronda Jerman, a 34-year-old mother of three from Gambrills, who comes to Electric Beach three times a week. "Everything else I do is about my kids, my husband and my kids. But I do this for me."

Tanning salons offer a way to control exposure to UV light and prevent the kind of sunburns that often accompany a trip to the beach, salon owners say. Those who tan easily or have dark pigmentation are less likely to develop skin cancer than people with light skin and less melanin to protect them, experts say.

Research also shows that people who maintain a constant tan have less risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, than those with a history of sunburns. And a few minutes a day in a tanning bed, for about a week, is often enough to prevent a sunburn, they say.

"It's far more dangerous to go to Ocean City and spend six hours on the beach than go to a salon," said Jim Wint, who owns Electric Beach with his wife.

Business has increased steadily in the five years that Wint and his wife have operated the salon along Route 175. A recent visit revealed a steady stream of customers who pay from $8 for a single session to $400 for packages. The salon offers 11 tanning beds and one tanning booth.

Wint's Web site notes studies pointing out how UV light is a source of vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones. Studies also have linked vitamin D deficiencies to increased risks of colon, breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. A recent Harvard study proposed that vitamin D deficiencies each winter may predispose people to flu and other infections.

"I think there's been a changing of opinion, just in the past year or so, with more recognition about the importance of vitamin D," Wint said.

One medical expert says dermatologists have gone overboard with warnings about UV exposure and are causing vitamin D deficiencies by driving people completely away from sunlight.

"The entire world's population has been brainwashed about the risk of ultraviolet light from sun," said Dr. Michael Holick, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine.

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