FDA Moves to Keep Teens Out of Tanning Beds

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Dec. 18, 2015 -- Citing a rise in skin cancer among young people, the FDA proposed rules Friday that would keep anyone under the age of 18 from using high-powered UV sunlamps, such as those in tanning beds.

Under the new rules, anyone 18 and over will also be required to sign a waiver every 6 months that says they understand that using these lamps has health risks that include burns and skin cancers.

Tanning lamps give off ultraviolet radiation that's 10 to 15 times stronger than the midday sun, said Vasum Peiris, MD, MPH, of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, in a news conference.

Skin damage caused by the UV radiation adds up over a person's lifetime, so the concentrated doses delivered by tanning beds are especially dangerous for children and teens.

In 2014, the FDA reclassified tanning beds from lower risk to moderate risk devices. They also required them to carry the strongest type of safety caution, a black-box warning stating they shouldn't be used by anyone under age 18, those with open wounds or injuries, or people with a family history of skin cancer. The agency also advised people who routinely use tanning beds to get regular skin cancer checks.

A month later, the surgeon general issued a call to action to prevent skin cancer that singled out the beds as a preventable cause of the disease.

But high schoolers have kept using tanning beds despite the beefed-up warnings, Peiris said, and that's prompted the need for stronger action.

The Indoor Tanning Association, however, disputed the need for more oversight.

"The indoor tanning industry is heavily regulated at both the federal and state levels, and our customers are well aware of the potential risks of over-exposure," the ITA said in an e-mailed statement.

"The ITA believes that the decision regarding whether or not a teen suntans, whether indoors or outside, is a decision for his/her parents, not the government."

Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults, and it's on the rise, with the biggest increase in recent decades seen in girls ages 15 to 19, Peiris said.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have already banned indoor tanning for minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 23 states require tanning booth operators to adhere to time limits set by sunlamp manufacturers.

Though teens are at greatest risk for the skin damage caused by sunlamps, they're also some of the industry's biggest customers -- 1.6 million minors tan indoors each year, according to data from the CDC's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Nearly 13% of high school students say they've used an indoor tanning device, and most of them are girls, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dermatologists said they were thrilled by the FDA's action.

"All the time we see young people who are diagnosed with melanoma," said Jennifer Stein, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU's Langone Medical Center. "Anything that the FDA can do to try to protect young people from the dangers of tanning beds is really important."

On top of the skin cancer risk, sunlamps are sometimes behind serious burns and other injuries. According to the CDC, tanning beds send about 3,000 people to emergency rooms every year.

In addition to keeping minors away from the devices, other changes the FDA is proposing to make tanning beds safer include:

  • Make warnings easier to read and more prominent.
  • Require an emergency shut-off switch, or "panic button."
  • Improve eye safety by adding requirements that would limit the amount of light allowed through protective eyewear.
  • Improve labeling on replacement bulbs so tanning facility operators can make sure they are using the proper bulbs, lowering the risk of accidental burns.
  • Prohibit dangerous device modifications, like installing stronger bulbs, without re-certifying and re-identifying the device with the FDA.


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SOURCES: Jennifer Stein, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at the Ronald O. Perlman Department of Dermatology at NYU's Langone Medical Center. News briefing, FDA. Indoor Tanning Restrictions for Minors, National Conference of State Legislatures, July 1, 2015. Press release, The Indoor Tanning Association.

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