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U of M study: Despite health risks, indoor tanning is still popular — especially in Midwest

Let’s hope the 10 percent tax on indoor tanning that went into effect last July helps dissuade people from using tanning beds.

One thing is for sure. People don’t seem to be paying much attention to the well-documented warnings that tanning beds can cause skin cancer. According to a University of Minnesota study published Monday in the Archives of Dermatology, very few people cite the avoidance of tanning beds as a way of reducing their risk of skin cancer.

“There’s a knowledge gap out there,” said Kelvin Choi, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the U of M’s School of Public Health, in a phone interview. “People are still not recognizing that indoor tanning use is linked to skin cancer.”

The study also found that women are nearly three times more likely than men to use tanning salons, particularly better educated, higher-earning women. (They must leave their critical thinking skills at the tanning salon’s door.)

In addition, said Choi, indoor tanning is more popular in the Midwest than in any other region of the country — not surprising, perhaps, given that the Midwest also has the highest per capita number of indoor tanning facilities in the country.

On the rise
For the record: About 1 million Americans were diagnosed with skin cancer in 2009, according to the American Cancer Society, and some 8,650 people died that year from melanoma skin cancer, the most deadly kind. The treatment of skin cancer costs the U.S. about $1.7 billion in direct medical costs and another $3.8 billion in lost productivity.

And here’s a really disturbing statistic: The incidence of skin cancer is on the rise, particularly among young adult women.

Last spring, another team of University of Minnesota researchers found that frequent users of indoor tanning devices were up to three times more likely to develop melanoma than those who had never used the devices. The World Health Organization has declared tanning devices “carcinogenic to humans” and has recommended that their commercial use be banned for individuals under the age of 18. Earlier this year, an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration recommended a similar ban.

But the indoor-tanning industry keeps growing. And growing. It lures about 30 million people (mostly women) into its glass beds each year, and takes in $5 billion in annual revenues. “In some cities, the number of indoor tanning facilities is even greater than the number of Starbucks,” said Choi.

Study details
To get a better idea of who is using indoor tanning, Choi and his colleagues analyzed data from 2,869 participants in the Health Information National Trends survey, conducted in 2005. Questions asked in this random telephone survey included ones about the use of sunscreens, indoor tanning devices and sunless tanning products. A subset of 821 participants were also asked about their knowledge regarding cancer prevention.

Here are details of some of the study’s main findings:

  • Among the survey’s participants, 18.1 percent of women and 6.3 percent of men reported using an indoor tanning facility at least once within the past 12 months.
  • Among women, the peak years for indoor tanning use were between the ages of 18 and 24. Use declined for both genders with age.
  • People who tanned indoors were less likely to use sunscreen outdoors. No surprise there. But they were also much more likely to use spray-on tanning products. “That was kind of surprising to us,” said Choi. The finding suggests, he added, that spray-on products are not always serving as a safe substitute for obtaining a tan.

The survey also asked people to name ways to prevent skin cancer. The most common responses were “wear sunscreen,” “avoid the sun” and “wear a hat.” Only 13.3 percent of the women and only 4.2 percent of the men put “avoid indoor tanning beds” on their list.

Also worrisome was that less than 6 percent of all the respondents reported that they should be evaluated for skin cancer.

A confusing message
Survey studies like this one have their limitations, of course. For example, the survey’s low overall response rate (20.9 percent among all known residential phone numbers and 62.5 percent among all eligible households) may have influenced the findings.

Still, the survey strongly suggests that we need more educational and media campaigns about the dangers of indoor tanning.

“We suspect that people may be confused by incorrect information about the possible benefits of indoor tanning — that it’s a safe way to get vitamin D or to establish a base tan. Both are actually not true,” said Choi.

You can find an abstract of the U of M study here.

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