The irresistible allure of a tan

  • Article by: HAYLEY TSUKAYAMA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2009 - 5:37 PM

Hopping onto a tanning bed is a common way for Minnesotans to soak up some rays year-round. Will a new medical review end our love for the fake bake?

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Despite the new classification of tanning beds as carcinogens, some users say they’ll continue to take the risk.

Photo: Sean Loftin, Sun Herald via Associated Press

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Erica Leanna, a member of a local professional dance team, considers tanned skin an unofficial job requirement. To keep bronzed throughout the year, Leanna, 23, takes weekly trips to the tanning salon.

"It's so popular and so common to go tanning," she said. "I'd say at least 85 or 90 percent of my friends do."

In a land of 10,000 Scandinavians, Minnesota tanning salons are a common sight. But a recent review of tanning beds from the World Health Organization's cancer research arm might give some tanners pause. Last week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified the beds as Group 1 devices, meaning there is sufficient evidence to label them "carcinogenic to humans."

This report establishes a causal link between UVA and UVB radiation and cancer. While tanning beds can produce UVA and UVB rays in different proportions than sunlight, both types are classified as Group 1 radiation.

DeAnn Lazovich, a cancer epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, said the classification system refers to the strength of the scientific proof that something will cause cancer, not necessarily its potency. For example, radioactive radiation is in Group 1, along with tobacco smoke and sunlight. As tanning beds and sunlight give off the same types of radiation, Lazovich said, it makes sense that they would have the same designation.

The new review states there is a particular risk for young women who use tanning beds, who tend to tan often and from an earlier age than do men.

It's hard to say, however, if the study will discourage the industry's regular customers.

A study Lazovich ran in 2002 found that 30 percent of men and 45 percent of women surveyed have used a tanning device in Minnesota.

Given the recent review, Leanna said she might limit trips to the tanning salon to once every two weeks, but will continue to tan.

Kelly Donohoe, 20, said she knows what scientists and doctors say about tanning, but she admits she doesn't pay much attention. "I suppose I should," she said. "But I stick to the low-UV beds and use a pretty high SPF lotion while I'm there."

Donohoe, who tans two or three times a week during the winter, said she's tried spray tans for immediate color, but found they don't last as long. This latest study won't prompt a change in her habits, she said.

Robbie Segler, owner of the national tanning chain Darque Tan, said his industry makes an effort to protect customers from undue risk. "It's the role of the professional tanning industry to encourage people to tan in moderation" and to avoid inappropriate use, which can cause sunburn, he said. Segler added that if someone who was sunburned walked into one of his salons, he or she would be advised not to use the tanning beds.

While he agrees that tanning should be classified with sunshine, Segler objects to some of the review's statements of risk and added that it ignores the benefits of tanning. For example, he said, UV radiation helps the body produce vitamin D. He said many people, especially those in northern climates, suffer from a vitamin D deficiency.

Lazovich acknowledged that the radiation from tanning beds -- like the radiation from sunlight -- can help the body produce vitamin D, but is still wary of the devices. "If people are concerned about vitamin D, they should look into supplements," she said. "You can get the same benefits without the harmful risks."

UV exposure and melanoma risk

Paul Kamman, president of the Plymouth-based group Melanoma Awareness, runs an education program to teach high school students about melanoma. "We do anything we can to keep kids from tanning beds," he said.

Kamman's son Keith died from the disease at age 33, following what his physicians believed was UV exposure in childhood.

The American Cancer Society recommends that people avoid tanning beds altogether, and is trying to change the perception that bronze is beautiful. Matt Flory, the health promotions director for the American Cancer Society in Minnesota, said tanning beds are harmful.

"In a state that would naturally have fewer instances of skin cancer, we are seeing rates that are the same as the rest of the country," he said.

Leanna said that all of the women on her team tan but that many opt for spray tans. And while she's always on the lookout for signs of skin cancer, the risks don't bother her enough to stop using tanning beds. She compared tanning bed use to smoking cigarettes; users acknowledge the risks involved, but continue their habits out of personal preference. She said that the reclassification won't change that.

"Everyone has always known about the risk," she said. "Girls are still going to tan in the same way."

Hayley Tsukayama • 612-673-7415

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