It could be a pale prom this year if local teenagers heed the warnings of a new Minnesota study linking indoor tanning with a dramatic rise in skin cancer rates among young women.

The report, published in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found an eightfold increase since 1970 in skin cancer rates for women under 40 and suggests that tanning beds and childhood sunburns are to blame. The new findings were released in time for some local high schoolers to debate whether to accessorize their prom looks with bronzed skin.

"Teenagers feel better in their prom pictures and in their dresses when they have a tan," said Joe Balfanz, owner of St. Croix Body Zone, a tanning and fitness studio in Hudson, Wis. "Is it better to be tan considering the ultraviolet rays and the cancer risks? Probably not. But again, someone who is tan just looks better than someone who is pasty white."

During spring break, prom and graduation season, tanning sales double and, of the 50 to 60 weekly customers, Balfanz estimates at least 70 percent are teenagers.

"We can thank 'Jersey Shore' for that one," he said of the hit reality MTV show where a cast of "Guidos" and "Guidettes" feverishly obsess over their bronze skin. "Once that show came out, our tanning sales took off."

Dr. Jerry Brewer, lead investigator and Mayo Clinic dermatologist, said despite abundant information about the dangers of tanning beds, young women continue to use them.

"Tanning has gotten a bad reputation over the last couple of years, but a lot of people still go secretly," said Amalia Mongiat, 18, a senior at St. Paul Central High School. Despite the risk involved, Mongiat has started tanning for her May 5 prom, but said she doesn't tan excessively and is aware of skin cancer signs. "Personally, I think I look better with a tan," she said.

That's the notion that the indoor tanning industry is banking on. At Body Zone, where high school students get discounted pricing on prom tanning packages, prom means big business.

To complete the study, Mayo Clinic researchers looked for first-time diagnoses of melanoma in patients 18 to 39 living in Olmsted County, Minn., from 1970 to 2009. Melanoma cases increased eightfold over the 40-year period, the study determined.

Another study, conducted in 2010 by the University of Minnesota, found that people who used tanning beds were 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma.

The Indoor Tanning Association has taken issue with the Mayo study, saying it was flawed because the population studied in Olmsted County is much paler and more Scandinavian than the nation's general population, meaning they were more vulnerable to skin cancer.

Efforts to limit use of tanning beds by minors has been a topic of political debate, including in California, which became the first state to forbid the use of UV indoor tanning beds for anyone under 18. Minnesota lawmakers are considering a similar ban; current law requires those under 16 to get permission, in person, from parents.

In the month before prom, many teenagers coveting a sun-kissed glow visit tanning salons 10 to 15 times, but tanning industry experts say traditional ultraviolet tanning beds aren't the only way to achieve a "Jersey Shore" look. UV-free tanning options such as airbrushing are becoming popular, too.

Joshua Miller, district manager for Darque Tan, a national chain with 16 Twin Cities locations, says teens don't make up even 5 percent of his clientele, but prom and spring break bring an annual bump in business.

"Teens are definitely not our demographic," he said, "but we do feel a boost during prom season."

The most popular request is a mix of UV and UV-free tanning, Miller said. In the tanning world, this combination is known as a "tanning cocktail," and includes a session in a UV bed followed up by a spray tan, which gives them an instant glow.

Every year, Kat Clancy gets more business from high schoolers at her airbrush tanning salon in St. Louis Park.

Students from St. Louis Park, Edina and Eden Prairie receive half-off a custom airbrush session, which regularly costs $25.

"One girl comes in and the next thing I know, 20 follow," Clancy said.

"A lot of the girls' moms are also clients of mine, and they're pushing this as a safe alternative to tanning beds."

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715