It should come as no surprise to anyone that tanning is bad for the skin. Premature aging, blemishes and skin cancer are all known to be the hazards of getting that yearned for year-long-summer look. And in case you're thinking that young skin can always withstand a little punishment in the name of beauty, a new study from the University of Minnesota suggests just how dangerous it can be to start early.
Skin cancer is the most common form of the disease in the U.S. with almost 74,000 new cases in 2015. Although melanoma only makes up around 2% of cases, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it accounts for most skin cancer deaths overall. Ultraviolet radiation can damage DNA, causing mutations in the pigment cells (or melanocytes) of the skin that can lead to tumors. The resulting growths can look like moles but may be red or the same color as the surrounding skin. Early skin cancers are relatively easy to treat but left untreated are just as deadly as any other. The ACS says there are nearly 10,000 deaths from melanoma every year.
The Minnesota team analyzed data relating to the risk of melanoma from indoor tanning, the age at which people start indoor tanning, the frequency of indoor tanning in men and women according to the age at which a diagnosis of melanoma was made as well as using a reference age for healthy patients as a control group. According to the study, among women diagnosed with melanoma, it was those under 40 who reported beginning indoor tanning at an earlier age and participating more frequently in tanning than older women diagnosed with the same potentially fatal cancer. For those under the age of 50 in the U.S., cases of melanoma are rising more steeply in women than in men.
The team at Minnesota, led by Dr. DeAnn Lazovich, looked at data from 681 patients diagnosed with melanoma between 2004 and 2007 and 654 comparison patients between the ages of 25 and 49. Among the patients with melanoma, 68.3% were women as were 68.2% of the patients in the comparison group. The researchers found that women who regularly tanned indoors had between twice and 6 times the risk of developing melanoma. Women younger than 40 said they had begun indoor tanning at a younger average age (16 years old) than women between 40 and 49 (25 years old). They also reported having more frequent indoor tanning sessions — women under 40 reported an average of 100 compared to 40 for older women).
Around a third of the women (21 participants) diagnosed with melanoma before the age of 30 were affected on their trunk of their bodies compared with a quarter (64 participants) of the older group. All but two of the 63 youngest women in the melanoma group under 30 reported tanning indoors. Men reported less indoor tanning (44.3%) compared with women (78.2%), regardless of whether they were diagnosed with melanoma or were comparison patients. Still, among men 30 to 39, about 41 percent were diagnosed as having melanoma on their trunk compared with 49 percent of men age 40 to 49.
The authors of the study — published in JAMA Dermatology — admit their work does have some limitations. A larger number of participants, they say, would provide better results but they are hopeful that the research can go some way to stemming the tide of new cases reported each year: "Our results indicate that these efforts need to be accelerated and expanded beyond bans on minor access to indoor tanning to curb the melanoma epidemic, which seems likely to continue unabated especially among young women, unless exposure to indoor tanning is further restricted and reduced."
"The article by Lazovich et al highlights the need to address indoor tanning among young white women, among whom indoor tanning is most common," says Dr. Gery P. Guy Jr. of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Reducing exposure to UV radiation from indoor tanning is an important strategy for melanoma prevention. Ongoing surveillance can be used to determine the impact of policies on reducing the use of indoor tanning and the incidence of melanoma." Far from being something to indulge in, maintaining a healthy skin regime is of particular importance at any time of life but particularly when young. Especially when you consider that sun damage doesn't stop when you step into the shade.