Young Women Tan, Despite Health Risks

Two-Thirds of Sorority Members Tan Indoors, 6% Do So Weekly

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 19, 2012 (San Diego) -- Most young women know that indoor tanning raises the risk of skin cancer, but two-thirds of sorority members at a Midwestern university used tanning beds in the past year, and 6% used them every week, a new survey shows.

Also, 93% intentionally tanned outdoors in the past year, and 20% did it more than 50 times, says researcher Whitney Hovenic, MD, MPH, chief resident in dermatology at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Virtually all the young women (96%) planned to sunbathe the following year, but only 60% planned to use sunscreen or wear protective clothing, Hovenic tells WebMD.

The students spent so much time tanning that most thought their skin color was naturally bronze, while in fact most have fair skin, Hovenic says. One-third reported a family history of skin cancer.

The study was presented here at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Melanoma Rising Among Young Women

The findings come at a time when rates of melanoma, the potentially fatal form of skin cancer, among young women aged 15 to 39 increased 50% from 1980 to 2004, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Studies have shown that exposure to UV radiation from indoor tanning raises the risk of melanoma by 75%, according to the AAD. People at high risk for melanoma also include those with a family history of skin cancer, fair skin, and a history of sunburn.

A recent national survey conducted by the AAD showed that 81% of white teenage girls and young women had tanned outdoors in the past year, and 32% had used tanning beds.

Most of the young women in both surveys acknowledged that tanning, particularly indoor tanning, was associated with the development of skin cancer, Hovenic says. So why did they take the risk?

"People still think tanned bodies look sexier, more fit," she says. In the new survey, three-fourths said they find tanned people more attractive.

In the Midwest, where winters can be long and gray, the weather drives young people to indoor tanning salons, Hovenic says.

Adding insult to injury: The indoor recreation center at the university has tanning beds, and most apartment complexes catering to the 30,000 students in town offer free indoor tanning as an incentive, she says.

Fighting Back

Hovenic and her colleagues are determined to turn these figures around. "Obviously just getting the message across that constant tanning, particularly indoor tanning, is bad, isn't doing the trick; the young women know that," she says.

So they devised a campaign tailored for young women, quoting Cosmo magazine and supermodels and featuring a video of a mother who lost her teenage daughter to melanoma.

"It seems to be having an impact," Hovenic says. Although the data have yet to be analyzed, it appears the number of young women tanning once a week is down about 50%, she says.

But other studies suggest that their win may be short-lived: Unless the campaign continues, the alarming figures will bounce back, Hovenic says.

Pearl Grimes, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells WebMD she is not surprised by the findings.

"Even though the AAD and other organizations attempt to get the message out that tanning is bad and indoor tanning is exceptionally bad, we live in a society driven by aesthetics," she says.

Grimes says that in a recent study, men and women rated faces that were tanned as being more attractive and healthier than fair faces.

She says she would like to see national legislation prohibiting people under 18 from going to tanning parlors.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.


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SOURCES: American Academy of Dermatology's 70th Annual Meeting, San Diego, March 16-20, 2012. Whitney Hovenic, MD, MPH, chief resident, dermatology, University of Missouri, Columbia. Pearl Grimes, MD, clinical professor, dermatology, University of California, Los Angeles.

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