How Tanning Beds Can Be a Risky Habit

By Robin P. Gehris, MD, FAAD, FAAP, Chief, Pediatric Dermatologic Surgery, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC

Dr. GehrisMay is not just Melanoma Awareness Month, but it is also the time of year when many teenagers are anticipating prom season and trying to look their best.

Some teenagers think that this can be achieved only with a deep, dark tan. What they may not realize is the long-term damage they are inflicting upon their skin by visiting the indoor tanning bed, whose rays can be even more damaging than those of the natural sun. This damage may not remain just skin-deep in some people. Unfortunately, tanning increases one’s risk of melanoma, a potentially deadly skin cancer that can strike even in childhood and can be fatal.

The state of New Jersey just recently banned minors under the age of 17 from using commercial tanning. California and Vermont also have banned indoor tanning for minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Here are some of the American Academy of Dermatology’s facts on the risk of indoor tanning:

Just as you would not encourage your teen to start other behaviors that are known to be risky (smoking, drinking alcohol while driving, etc.) just for prom season, help them find alternatives to using tanning beds.

One healthy alternative to offer teens and young adults who want the look tan is a self-tanning product, such as a spray tan or even an over-the-counter self-tanning cream, lotion, or foam. These agents temporarily stain the outer layer of the skin and do not increase the risk of skin cancer or melanoma. Your teen should gently exfoliate before applying these products so that they stain the skin evenly, and he or she may want to try the products in advance of the important event so he or she can find the best product. The only word of caution is that many of these self-tanning products DO NOT have SPF in them, so they may make your child appear tan, but they do nothing to protect from getting sunburn.  If you are planning on going out into the sun after using one of these products, you should apply a separate sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to 30, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.

At Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, we are here to make your children look and feel their absolute best, and we want to help them learn healthy habits at a young age that they can practice for the rest of their lives.