Despite years of warnings regarding the risk of skin cancer due to ultraviolet rays and exposure to the sun, researchers and dermatologists are discovering recent scientific data indicating more people are becoming afflicted with melanoma, a form of skin cancer.
Dr. Delfine Lee, a researcher and dermatologist at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, concurred with the recent findings on the increase in skin cancers.
“In fact, we have seen the incidents of melanoma increase over a 30-year period,” the doctor said.
While melanoma is not as common as other skin cancers, it is much more dangerous if it is not found early. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 48,000 melanoma-related deaths occur each year.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and the new studies have some medical specialists concerned about the rise in melanoma, especially in young women and men.
The cancer causes tumors that develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells, most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds, triggers mutations that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
“Research tells us that ultraviolet light from any source can cause skin cancer, including tanning beds,” Lee said. “Tanning beds can emit more ultraviolet light than the sun at noon.”
Models and actors sporting tans are frequently depicted on television, in movies and in popular magazines. Through the use of tanning salons, the public can showcase year-round tans, even in states that are landlocked.
Sheila Forman, PhD., a Santa Monica psychologist, said some people associate tans with a number of appealing qualities, in direct contrast to the consequences of those who spend too much time in the sun or a tanning salon.
“They are perceived as better-looking and healthier, and therefore more appealing,” Forman told The Argonaut.
The psychologist said people who sport sun-bronzed skin or a salon-generated tan year-round can also be perceived as wealthier than others because some may think individuals with long lasting tans may have more free time and are able to golf, swim or visit sunny locations more frequently.
A New Jersey woman, Patricia Krentcil, has faced a great deal of ridicule for her very deep and what some consider, unhealthy tan. Dubbed “the tanning mom,” Krentcil has been a subject of controversy after she was arrested last month on child endangerment charges for allegedly taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning salon.
Police were notified by school officials after the 5-year-old came to school with what appeared to be sunburn and reportedly said she had gone “tanning with mommy.” Krentcil has denied allowing her daughter into a tanning booth and has said her daughter was sunburned.
New Jersey law prohibits children under the age of 14 from using tanning booths and teens 14 to 17 from using them without parental consent.
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Marina del Rey) sponsored Senate Bill 746 last year that prohibits minors from using tanning beds. The law went into effect at the beginning of the year and Lieu said studies on melanoma and ultraviolent rays from tanning beds was a key factor in his decision to sponsor SB 746.
“The studies that I reviewed when I was considering SB 746 showed that it is an undeniable fact that ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer,” the senator said.
Lee cited a recent study that indicates that tanning may have some addictive properties.
Researchers at the Center for Dermatology Research, Department of Dermatology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. found withdrawal-like symptoms in a small randomized, controlled trial of opioid blockade in frequent tanners.
“Frequent tanning has reinforcing properties. We tested whether opioid antagonism blocks potential reinforcing effect of indoor tanning in eight frequent tanners and eight infrequent tanner control subjects,” the researchers wrote. “Opioid blockade reduced ultraviolet preference in frequent tanners.
“Four of eight frequent tanners, but no infrequent tanners, exhibited withdrawal-like symptoms with naltrexone administration.”
The research team noted that one of the study’s limitations was its small size.
Forman, a former chair of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association’s Media Committee, said there is a medical condition called taxorexia, an addition to tanning.
“It mimics many of the same patterns of addition that you find in gamblers and alcoholics,” said Forman, who added that these cases are rare.
One of the most interesting trends is the rise in melanoma in younger women.
In the April edition of “Mayo Clinic Proceedings” from the renowned clinic of the same name, scientific data showed younger women are now more susceptible to melanoma.
“We anticipated we’d find rising rates, as other studies are suggesting, but we found an even higher incidence than the National Cancer Institute had reported using the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Result database, and in particular, a dramatic rise in women in their 20s and 30s,” says lead investigator Dr. Jerry Brown.
The study found the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men. The lifetime risk of melanoma is higher in males, but not in young adults and adolescents.
Researchers pointed to the rise in the use of indoor tanning beds as one of the main reasons behind the trend, but childhood sunburns and ultraviolet exposure in adulthood may also contribute to melanoma risk, according to the Mayo Clinic study.
Lieu said he is disturbed but not surprised by the various studies’ findings. “This just confirms what many other studies have already confirmed,” he said. “Whether it’s from the sun or from a tanning bed, these ultraviolet rays are harmful to young people.
“The damage is cumulative, so the more exposure one gets younger in life, the worse the harmful effects will be.”
Organizations with ties to the tanning industry take issue with the findings.
John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., said that indoor tanning bed use shouldn’t be singled out as a cause for the rise in skin cancer rates.
“The study itself has almost nothing to do with indoor tanning and the links they cite to indoor tanning are nothing but speculation,” Overstreet said. “They attempt to make indoor tanning the story while ignoring other possible risk factors such as sunburning outdoors, sunscreens that for several decades did not block (ultraviolet rays), the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet wavelength, and more frequent travel to sunny vacation locations over the last decade, where severe sunburns are more likely to occur.”
The California Indoor Tanning Trade Organization opposed Lieu’s bill.
“No well-designed studies support the connection between (skin cancer) and ultraviolet rays from tanning beds,” the group’s website stated last year.
In order to lessen the possibility of skin cancer, Lee recommends protecting oneself when outdoors by wearing clothing with a fabric of at least a 50-percent sun protective factor, purchasing a colorless dye for clothing with a 30-percent protective factor and applying sunscreen to exposed areas.
Forman thinks those who enjoy tanning should consider following an old but familiar adage.
“Everything in moderation – including tanning,” she suggested.