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Between 1975 and 2012 the incidence of solid tumors in the US declined, however the incidence of melanoma rose at a rate of three percent a year. Melanoma represents a small fraction of skin cancers (less than five percent,) but it accounts for 75 percent of deaths from skin cancer. All skin cancers are caused by exposure to sunlight, specifically to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Many studies suggest that sunburns during childhood are a causative factor of melanoma, but recent studies have linked melanoma to a different source of UVR – indoor tanning or tanning beds.

The World Health Organization has added tanning beds to its list of class I carcinogens and has indicated that the risk of melanoma is much greater in those under the age of 35 who have been exposed to indoor tanning devices. A recent study found that 97 percent of women diagnosed with melanoma before age 30 and 94 percent of women with melanoma aged 30 to 39 had engaged in indoor tanning, and the median number of tanning sessions was greater than 100. As more and more studies are published, the evidence is compelling that melanomas in young people are directly linked to indoor tanning.

In 2013 a national health survey estimated that 7.8 million adult females and 1.9 million adult males used indoor tanning devices. This practice is particularly prevalent among teenagers and those under 25. The survey found that 20 percent of female high school students and five percent of male students used indoor tanning devices and more than half were “frequent tanners” (more than 10 sessions a year). This alarming trend has caused some states to restrict indoor tanning to those 18 and over. In 2014 the FDA reclassified tanning beds from low-risk class I devices to moderate-risk class II devices. In 2015 the FDA proposed a rule to restrict indoor tanning to those over 18 and to require users to acknowledge that they have been informed of the health risks of using the device. This informed consent will be required every six months.

UVR causes skin cancers by causing genetic mutations in skin cells. Unfortunately societal norms still value a suntan despite the dangers of melanoma associated with sun tanning. What is becoming abundantly clear is that, especially in teenagers and young people, the use of indoor tanning devices is putting them at unacceptably high risk of developing melanoma, a potentially lethal disease. This is especially sad given the fact that skin cancers in general, and specifically melanoma, are very preventable diseases. It would therefore not be surprising to see the use of indoor tanning devices further restricted, if not banned entirely. If you or your children use indoor tanning devices, please consider stopping. If you use these devices, you are playing Russian roulette with your life and health. And finally, if you use or have used these devices, be sure to see a dermatologist at least annually, if not every six months, to get a full skin cancer screening exam.

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