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Are Uv Rays In Tanning Beds Really Safe?

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Guest Hallie Levine

UV rays still cause cancer, but that hasn't slowed the booming tanning industry. In fact, an investigative report in Prevention magazine found that hard-sell tactics and misinformation about sun tanning has millions of people still getting burned. On NBC's "Today" show, Rosemary Ellis, vice president and editorial director of Prevention magazine, sheds some light on the subject. Read an excerpt from Prevention's report:

 

Michele Hoard has stayed away from tanning beds and out of the sun since she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, in January 2003. But when she heard that a tanning salon near her home in Minneapolis was offering a sunless, spray-on self-tanner, she decided that it was worth finding out more about the tanning alternative.

 

"I walked in and asked the guy at the front desk about it, and he recommended instead that I go into one of the tanning beds for 10 minutes before trying the spray," recalls Hoard, 35. "I said, 'I can't tan; I'm a melanoma survivor.'"

 

His response floored her.

 

"He just waved his hand and said, 'No worries — the tanning beds are good for you because they contain mostly UVA rays, which reduce your risk of cancer.' I couldn't believe he was advocating tanning to someone who'd had skin cancer."

 

Lisa Whitehead, now 42, bought an indoor-tanning membership and started going every other day because "the manager told me that the beds were FDA-approved and that the indoor rays were safer than the sun because all the bad, cancer-causing agents were filtered out," she says. Four years later, she noticed a black spot on her upper arm and decided it had to be a beauty mark. "I didn't really think about it until a few months later, when I went to see my dermatologist and she told me I needed to have it biopsied," Whitehead recalls. Two days later, she learned that she had stage 1 melanoma — at age 27. "I went back into the tanning salon and screamed at them," says Whitehead, now married with two children. "I told them that they had lied and that their beds had given me cancer."

 

Hoard and Whitehead are not alone. In an investigation into the $5 billion tanning salon industry, Prevention has found that hard-sell tactics and false assurances of safety are luring women into putting themselves at risk for cancer, disfigurement, and worse. Not only do some industry representatives claim that tanning is safe; they also insist that soaking up ultraviolet radiation from sunlamps is actually good for you. Read on for what you must know to protect yourself — or your teenage daughter — from this dangerous misinformation.

 

Booming Business

There's no doubt that the tanning business is booming. Sales figures for Hollywood Tans, the largest tanning salon chain in the country, have surged more than 450% since 2000, and industry numbers are up overall: 29 million people visited a tanning salon in 2003, compared with 27 million in 2000, reports the National Tanning Training Institute, an industry education group based in Phoenix. The group claims that of the 1 million-plus people who spend time and money in tanning salons each day, 70 percent are women, and 53 percent are between the ages of 20 and 39. And, reports the industry, the two fastest-growing categories of indoor-tanning-bed users are female teens between 16 and 19 and women between 40 and 49.

 

What may be drawing them, in part, are the tanning industry's unprecedented and aggressive new marketing tactics, which have confused consumers about the real risks of tanning beds. These started last fall, on the heels of a 2-day October summit in Washington, DC, where public health officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviewed evidence suggesting that certain groups of Americans don't get enough vitamin D in their diets. As remedies, experts recommended supplements, vitamin-fortified dairy products, and brief exposure to sunlight, because UV radiation helps the body manufacture vitamin D.

 

Indoor-tanning businesses took that baton and ran with it, boldly offering their services as a solution to what they've dubbed "a life-threatening epidemic of vitamin D deficiency."

 

"My wife uses tanning beds because she's concerned about vitamin D deficiency," says Michael Stepp, CEO of Wolff System Technologies, a major manufacturer of tanning lamps in Marietta, GA. "Sure, she's Norwegian with a lot of moles, but she knows that the health benefits of a small amount of sun exposure far outweigh the risks."

 

Such carefully crafted messages and testimonials extolling the benefits of tanning "are convincing women that tanning salons are safe," says Mark Naylor, MD, a dermatologist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, an independent biomedical research organization in Oklahoma City. The industry spin also has dermatologists scrambling to head off the public's misplaced concerns regarding the need for vitamin D. "These claims are ludicrous," says James Spencer, MD, professor of dermatology at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. "The great majority of Americans get adequate amounts of vitamin D." In addition, the amount of sunlight a fair-skinned person needs to make a whole month's supply of vitamin D is about 5 to 10 minutes three times a week — just on the face. "The same UVB rays that create vitamin D can destroy it in your skin," warns Robert Heaney, MD, John A. Creighton professor of medicine at Creighton University and a speaker at the NIH conference last fall. So with UVB, more exposure isn't better — even for synthesizing vitamin D. Indoor-tanning packages, however, are often sold in monthly units of unlimited tanning.

 

Tanning and Cancer

Murky science and controversial claims are nothing new for the indoor-tanning industry, which used to advertise its tanning devices as safer than the sun. Now, it employs marketing practices that are even more aggressive than the tobacco industry's methods prior to the antismoking backlash of the 1970s. "When the first research came out showing that smoking was dangerous, the tobacco industry's response was always, 'We don't know. There's just not enough science,'" says Spencer. "But here, the tanning industry is not just saying it's not dangerous; it's saying tanning is actually good for you. The tobacco industry never said that, to my recollection."

 

Even more worrisome than the tanning camp's assertions regarding vitamin D is its position on cancer, which it says can be caused by sun deprivation and prevented by tanning lamps. The claims — that brief exposure to tanning devices can ward off cancers of the colon, prostate, and breast, as well as a host of other debilitating diseases, including osteoporosis, arthritis, and depression — do contain a tiny kernel of truth. They're based on research conducted largely by Michael Holick, MD, director of the Vitamin D, Skin, and Bone Research Laboratory at Boston University, with partial funding from the tanning industry. But Holick concedes that the amount of sunshine you need is minimal, "and you don't need to go to tanning salons to get it."

 

Other experts are even more skeptical, pointing out that scientific evidence suggests only that vitamin D may help protect against colon cancer. "Even there, we're not sure if it's due to the vitamin alone or in combination with calcium," says dermatologist Martin Weinstock, MD, PhD, chair of the American Cancer Society's Skin Advisory Group.

 

The tanning industry's other major point — that avoiding the sun (or sunlamps) may put you at increased risk of prostate, lung, breast, colon, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers — is based on research conducted by William Grant, PhD, a NASA scientist. These claims, detailed in an October 2003 industry press release, have been dismissed by the dermatology community. "It is dangerous to mislead the public into thinking sunlight is a safe and effective 'cure' for other health conditions," says Raymond L. Cornelison Jr., MD, president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

 

For all the urgency the tanning salon industry places on cancer prevention and health, the one disease it downplays is skin cancer — especially melanoma.

 

"One of the more common beliefs offered as 'fact' by some members of the medical community and people opposed to tanning is the idea that natural or artificial sunlight can trigger melanoma," says Wolff System's Stepp. "The truth is, melanoma is believed to be genetically triggered." Weinstock vehemently disagrees, noting that although "genetic background plays a role, the biggest factor in melanoma is UV exposure." What's more, scientific evidence supports a link between tanning-bed use and skin cancer. A review study published last October in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute strengthened the evidence that tanning beds are helping drive up rates of melanoma, a cancer that kills one American every hour. (The lifetime risk of developing invasive melanoma has increased a whopping 2,000% since 1930.) The JNCI review noted that indoor tanning can increase a fair-skinned individual's risk of developing melanoma by 55%. And it can take a mere 10 indoor-tanning sessions to cause precancerous DNA damage, reports a recent review study by a Kings College London researcher.

 

Indoor tanning contributes to nonmelanoma skin cancers as well. A 2002 study in the JNCI found that tanning-bed enthusiasts have up to 2 1/2 times the risk of squamous cell carcinoma and 1 1/2 times the risk of basal cell carcinoma compared with nonusers.

 

Naylor, the Oklahoma dermatologist, has no doubt that indoor tanning is responsible for many new cases of skin cancer. "In the past few years, I've seen an increase in the number of tanning-bed users with skin cancers on parts of their bodies that don't get exposed to sunlight, such as their breasts and buttocks," he says. Kristi Hiltz, 24, of Baltimore, tanned topless 5 days a week for 4 years but stopped in 1999 when her dermatologist diagnosed melanoma in a mole on her left breast. "My doctor is convinced that my cancer is from indoor tanning, since the spot was always covered by a bikini top whenever I was outdoors," Hiltz says.

 

Excerpted from Prevention magazine's "A Killer Tan," by Hallie Levine. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved. To read the full story you can check out the May issue of Prevention, or visit their Web site at: http://www.prevention.com/cda/feature2002/...s1-6997,00.html

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Oh come on Hallie. You wrote the story for Prevention now didn't you? And from my understanding of it, you were provided plenty of unbiased independent scientific research that either you or your editors chose to ignore. Your article was biased, unfair and unbalanced. I have been tanning indoors for about 21 years and never had melanoma. Doctors find it in areas not usually exposed to the sun. How do ytou explain that?

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