At 17, Andrea Roman said she enjoys tanning for the cosmetic benefit. “I do it for the color,” she said. “I just like being tan.’’
On any given day, Roman is among the more than one million people nationwide using an indoor tanning bed, despite the cancer risk warnings – especially to young women—from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
An April study by the Mayo Clinic found that the rate of melanoma per 100,000 females increased from 5.4 in the 1970s to 43.5 in 2009. The study noted a “dramatic rise of skin cancer—especially among people under 40.” Nearly 70 percent of tanning salon customers are Caucasian females, primarily aged 16 to 29 years, according to the AAD.
“We are seeing more melanoma at younger and younger ages,” said Dr. Richard Antaya, a Yale pediatric dermatologist.
Despite the health risks, the tanning salon industry is rising in popularity and remains largely unregulated in Connecticut.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the authority to inspect tanning salons, but because of budget constraints it leaves inspections and licensing to the states. Unlike some county health departments in the states of New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Kansas, Florida, Illinois and Ohio that conduct inspections, Connecticut does not inspect salons unless a complaint is filed. Jefferson County in Alabama puts its inspections and ratings online.
Connecticut requires people under 16 to obtain parental consent to use an indoor tanning salon, and at least 31 other states have laws restricting use by minors. Proposals in Connecticut and at least 15 other states to raise the legal age of tanning to 18 were defeated this year.
Also, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s effort, along with others, to place stricter regulations on tanning beds was blocked this year.
“There is a good reason these tanning beds are shaped like coffins – they, like cigarettes and asbestos, are basically carcinogen-delivering devices,” said DeLauro. “This is why I have fought for the FDA to act on recommendations made over two years ago and reclassify tanning beds as the carcinogen they are.”
Tanning beds are classified as Class I medical devices, along with bandages, tongue depressors and cotton swabs. DeLauro, among other lawmakers, has lobbied the FDA to reclassify tanning beds as Class II or Class III devices to indicate a greater risk.
Class I devices “present minimal potential for harm,” while Class III devices, which include pacemakers and heart valves, are usually devices necessary to support human lives or “present a potential, unreasonable risk of illness or injury,” according to the FDA. Class III devices are subject to stricter regulations than those in Class I or Class II.
CT Tanning Laws vs. Other States
Connecticut’s law for indoor tanning is not as strict as in many other states. There are no provisions, as in some states, placing limits on exposure time or requiring salons to provide protective eyewear.
The state also does not require that tanning salons be inspected or licensed. Local health districts have the responsibility for enforcing the state law that bars people under 16 from tanning without parental consent. The maximum fine for a violation is $100.
The Central Connecticut Health District, which encompasses the municipalities of Berlin, Newington, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield, has received only one complaint since the under-16 tanning law was enacted in 2006. According to Paul Hutcheon, the district’s director of health, a tanning salon allowed a girl under 16 to tan without consent. The teenager’s father registered the complaint after he discovered his daughter used an indoor tanning bed without his permission.
“The salon admitted to it and the paid the fine,” Hutcheon said. “My hope is that the operators are following the law, but who knows?”
Stephanie Bonicki, the owner of Tanning Plus, a tanning salon located in Watertown, said she does not allow teenagers under 16 to tan, even with parental permission.
“I will usually get a mother who says it’s OK for her daughter to tan, but if they’re under 16, they don’t tan here,” Bonicki said. She also said patrons are required to wear protective eyewear at her salon, and that she closely monitors tanning time, to ensure patrons do not exceed time limits set by manufacturers.
This year, California became the first state to ban indoor tanning for all minors under the age of 18. In 2009, Howard County, Maryland, became the first local jurisdiction to ban indoor tanning for minors under 18.
In July, New York passed a law prohibiting the use of indoor tanning beds by those 16 and younger and requiring 17-year-olds to obtain parental consent. Rhode Island’s new law makes it illegal for anyone under age 18 to use a facility unless they have parental consent or a doctor’s note. That law takes effect Jan. 1.
Addicted To Tanning
Jessayln Rodriguez, 20, stopped going to tanning salons in high school because it was expensive and she felt she would begin to tan excessively if she continued.
“There’s something about the warmth of the bed and the smell of the lotion that is just so relaxing,” she said.
Although Rodriguez enjoyed using the tanning beds, she soon realized that the relaxing sensation was addictive.
“You just don’t realize how dark you’re getting when you tan,” she said. “You look at yourself and think, ‘I’m so pale, I need to go tanning,’ when to everyone else, you’re actually really dark.”
Studies show it is possible to become addicted to UV exposure. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center reported that exposure to UV rays activates the “reward center” of the brain – the same area stimulated by drugs and fatty foods.
Breaking the habit of regularly visiting the tanning salon can be difficult, Antaya said. “Several studies show that UV rays stimulate endorphins,” he said. “We have to tell them [not to tan] when they’re young. People say, ‘I might as well keep smoking because I’ve been smoking for three years, so why stop?’ It’s the same with tanning.”
In a survey conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology, 86 percent of respondents said they knew tanning beds can cause cancer and still reported using one within the past year. When asked if they think people look more attractive with a tan, 66 percent of respondents said yes.
Having tanned skin has become synonymous with health and leisure, Antaya said, pointing to the fact that health clubs commonly host tanning beds. Having tanned skin didn’t always signify health, leisure and attractiveness, however.
“If you go back in history, it’s very recent that having a tan has been given elevated social status,” Antaya said.
Antaya suggested several ways to discourage teens from tanning: tell them that exposure will make them look older, and mention the possibility of infections from lying in a tanning bed that is not properly cleaned, he said. “I consistently tell patients not to use tanning beds.”
Kimberly Wilson is a student intern from the University of Connecticut.