Parents have been asking me whether tanning salons and indoor-tanning beds are safe for their older children and teens. Well, let me do more than skin the surface on the subject of indoor tanning.
We know that the sun’s ultraviolet rays can be dangerous to all of us and increase our chances of premature wrinkling and skin cancer. The same holds true for indoor-tanning beds, which often use ultraviolet rays and can be 10 to 15 times stronger than midday sun.
As a result of the potential dangers of indoor-tanning beds for teenagers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with other medical organizations, supports passage of state laws prohibiting teens under 18 years old from using these devices. Fortunately, both Vermont and New York have passed such laws, although enforcing it is easier said than done.
Does this mean your teen cannot look sun-bronzed? Lots of safe self-tanning cosmetic lotions are available, but if you wear these, sunscreen is a must as well since the lotions do not protect against sun damage.
What about the spray-on tans? The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical in spray-on tans that reacts with skin cells to form brown-black compounds that deposit into the skin. Some laboratory studies suggest that DHA could cause changes in one’s DNA if it gets into the lungs and blood system, resulting in an increased risk for birth defects in a pregnant woman or an increased risk for lung cancer. The data, however, is still preliminary, and the side effects of exposure to DHA are still under study.
If your teenager wants to spray tan, make sure to select a spray-tanning salon where they offer protection of the eyes, nose and mouth. Also, encourage your teen to hold their breath while the spray tan is being applied. Spray tans also require sunscreen to be applied on top of the tan to insure adequate sun protection.
Don’t forget, even if your teen decides not to tan indoors, the sun is a major factor in skin damage. Encourage your teen to use sunscreen and wear sun-protective clothing and hats anytime they are outside. Make sure to check skin for suspicious moles if a teen or adult has had substantive sun or indoor-tanning exposure.
Hopefully tips like these will not pale in comparison to the risks one can experience if exposed to ultraviolet light or the chemicals in too much spray tanning.
Dr. Lewis First is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.