Jodi Duke was 16 when she went to a tanning salon for the first time. The fair-skinned redhead says she just wanted luminous, golden skin, like her friends' at school.
It began with occasional 20-min. visits to the salon close to Duke's high school in Denver. But soon the low-intensity tanning bed wasn't cutting it anymore. So Duke switched to one with a more powerful sunlamp and started going to the salon more often. "First it was once every couple of weeks. Then once every week. And later it was every day," she says.
In 1996, three years after lying on her first sun bed, Duke went to see a doctor to get a mole removed. Routine tests confirmed that the mole was a malignant tumor Duke had advanced-stage melanoma and was wheeled into surgery that week. A chunk of flesh from her right arm was removed, and a year of intensive cancer therapy followed. She survived without serious complications.
Duke thinks it was the years of regular tanning that caused her melanoma, and the vast majority of scientific literature supports her theory. Exposure to ultraviolet light, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, increases the risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, and teenagers especially pale-skinned redheads like Duke are considered among the most vulnerable. In July the cancer-research wing of the World Health Organization (WHO) added tanning beds and sunlamps to its list of human-cancer-causing agents. "The risk of cutaneous melanoma is increased by 75% when use of tanning devices starts before 30 years of age," reads a statement on the WHO website.
Still, 13 years after Duke's diagnosis, there is no nationwide regulation governing the use of tanning salons by young people. According to a 2004 survey, 1 in 10 youths ages 11 to 18 uses a tanning bed each year. Wisconsin is the only state that bans indoor tanning among kids under 16; in 28 other states, teens under 16 need parental consent or accompaniment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommendation for adults is to keep tanning-bed exposure to no more than three times a week during the first week of tanning. And yet a survey of more than 3,600 tanning salons in 50 states has found that 71% would turn a blind eye to that guideline when it came to teenage customers. Most salons said they would readily allow teenagers to tan seven times a week.
The study was published in the September issue of the journal Archives of Dermatology and was led by researchers at San Diego State University. Investigators trained five female college students to pose as fair-skinned, 15-year-old first-time tanners and had them call tanning salons to inquire about services. Each time, the students asked the same questions: Could a 15-year-old use the tanning beds? How many visits would be allowed in a week? Would a parent need to be present?
The majority of tanning salons required parental consent in the form of a phone call or written statement. Only 5% said they would not allow a teenager to tan. And of the establishments that allowed teen tanning, a mere 11% adhered to the FDA guidelines and said they would cap visits at three per week. "The tanning industry makes its profits off selling a carcinogen to teenagers and young adults. In that sense, it is similar to the cigarette industry," says Dr. Martin Weinstock, a professor of dermatology at Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School and an author of the study.
The Indoor Tanning Association (ITA) dismisses such charges as mere ballyhoo, pointing out that the UV light from tanning beds is no different from sunlight exposure to either one raises the risk of skin cancer which is why the tanning industry has always emphasized the importance of moderation, says John Overstreet, executive director of the ITA. He adds that technicians at tanning salons are trained to prevent overexposure and sunburns. "If clients get a sunburn, they are not going to come back," says Overstreet.
For their part, skin-cancer experts recommend that people eliminate the risk of overexposure from the start, by covering up in the sun with long sleeves and pants or at the very least wearing sunscreen. That is especially true on summer vacations, when people who have been indoors most of the year suddenly hit the beach for a week. Melanoma is associated with intermittent exposure to intense sun, particularly before the age of 18, so youngsters need to be extra careful about sun protection, says Robert Dellavalle, chief of dermatology at the VA Medical Center in Denver.
If you insist on tanning, experts say spray-on glows are much safer than tanning beds. But cancer survivor Jodi Duke takes exception to both. "I have become an advocate for looking at yourself and knowing you are beautiful as you are," she says.