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1 in 5 young women who tan indoors may have a tanning dependency, study suggests

tanning bed
The study found the women recognize that their tanning behavior puts them at risk for skin cancer, but they believe the perceived benefits of tanning outweigh those risks.

More than one-fifth of young white women who go to tanning salons may be dependent on the high doses of ultraviolet light (UV) emitted by the tanning beds, a new study suggests.

The study also found that indoor-tanning dependency (defined in the study as tanning “in a compulsive, addictive manner”) was strongly associated with depression.

Yet educating those young women about tanning’s skin-cancer risks is apparently not enough to make them stop. The study found the women already recognize that their tanning behavior puts them at risk for skin cancer, but they believe the perceived benefits of tanning, particularly improved appearance, outweigh those risks.

“It’s troubling,” said Darren Mays, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University, in a released statement. “We know that tanning, especially early in life, increases the risk of skin cancers, and is associated with early-onset cancers.”

Established risk factor

Indeed, as background information in the study points out, indoor tanning is an established risk factor for skin cancer, including melanoma, the most deadly form of the disease. A single indoor tanning exposure raises the risk of melanoma by about 20 percent.

Melanoma is now the most frequently diagnosed cancer among young adults aged 25 to 29 and the second most frequently diagnosed cancer among young people aged 15 to 29. Tragically, it’s also the leading cause of cancer death in women aged 25 to 30 and the second-leading cause of cancer death in women aged 30 to 35.

Each year more than 76,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma and more than 9,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Midwest — including Minnesota — has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the country.

How the study was done

For the current study, published online in Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Mays and his colleagues interviewed 389 white women between the ages of 18 and 30 who said they had tanned indoors at least once during the past 12 months. All lived in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Only white women were recruited into this study because they are the most prevalent users of indoor tanning. In 2013, researchers reported that 15 percent of white women between the ages of 18 and 34 had engaged in indoor tanning 10 or more times during the previous year.

The current study’s participants were asked questions about their use of indoor tanning. They also filled out questionnaires to assess depression and tanning dependence.

Previous research has suggested that individuals can develop a dependence on indoor tanning. Scientists aren’t sure of the biological mechanism behind this dependency, but research has shown that when exposed to UV light, several areas of the brain “light up” with activity — areas also involved with alcohol and drug addiction.

What the study found

Among the study’s participants, about 23 percent screened positive for indoor tanning dependency. They tended to be younger in age and to have stronger opinions about the importance of appearance than the other women in the study.

They were also four times more likely to have symptoms of depression.

The women with an indoor-tanning dependency also tended to dismiss concerns about the practice’s health risks (which include premature aging of the skin as well as cancer). They said those risks were not as important as the way tanning improved their appearance.

This finding suggests that education alone is not going to get many young women to stop tanning. The women’s depression will also need to be addressed.

“The intervention model needs to go above and beyond informing about risk to include treating those symptoms,” Mays said. As with other addiction treatments, the intervention may need to include a combination of counseling and medications, he added.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, but the full paper is behind a paywall.

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