Last week, the Mayo Clinic released a startling study about the increase of melanoma rates in young women in a Midwestern county. According to the findings, in Olmstead County, Minnesota, rates of cutaneous melanoma in women aged 18 to 39 had “increased by 8-fold.” And, the researchers theorized, it’s due in large part to indoor tanning, a practice that has been consistently linked with premature aging and skin cancer. But that didn’t stop the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA) from responding with a snippy press release, that tries to debunk the study and tout the benefits of vitamin D.
We are surprised that an institution usually as well-respected as the Mayo Clinic would publish a report like this; the study itself has nothing to do with indoor tanning, yet the authors make a leap of pure speculation to suggest that rising melanoma rates may have a connection to indoor tanning. The fact is there is no consensus among researchers regarding the relationship between melanoma skin cancer and UV exposure either from the sun or a sunbed, despite what the press release would have you believe.
I’m sorry, people who make money off indoor tanning, but I’m going to have to side with the scientists on this one.
In their attempt to mitigate the damage done to their profession, the ITA raises several points about the study–chiefly, that the county it studies is predominantly white (which is true), and that the Mayo Clinic did not explicitly study indoor tanning as a cause (which is also true). But they’re grasping at straws.
These points aren’t really enough to refute the findings that Americans of all walks of life are getting cancer at a rapidly increasing rate–or that exposure to UVA and UVB rays, whether they come from the actual sun (like on “sunny vacations” that the tanning industry blames) or indoor tanning has been pretty well linked to cancer. This isn’t an isolated study, and it isn’t junk science. That’s just what the ITA would like customers, who pay they money to be exposed to the aforementioned rays or potentially harmful light, to think.
Fair-skinned individuals are more susceptible to the danger of the sun, says the ITA, and the increase in melanoma among that population is not indicative of a trend within the overall population of the United States. But here’s the thing: over the last 40 years, incidents of cutaneous melanomas have gone up in all populations by 50%. And among Caucasian girls and women living in California–particularly those of higher socioeconomic status, where tanning for events (like, say, the prom) is a pretty popular activity–the statistics are equally frightening.
Sure, the ITA will point to the fact that wealthy white girls in California also like to go to the beach, lay in the sun, and thus, get cancer–but isn’t that still basically tanning? And if so, can they really claim that concentrated doses of the same light while indoors are somehow magically less harmful than those which are outside? No. Of course they can’t. All conventional wisdom points to the fact that indoor tanning is not safe. But they really, really want you to believe it is–or, at least, that other stuff (like the sun) is less safe, and that tanning offers benefits, like fighting depression and helping your skin produce vitamin D. This is the same reason that tanning salons are notoriously cagy and misleading about safety concerns and potential health risks: they don’t want you to be worried. They want you to think it’s safe. They want you to keep tanning.
This isn’t new or shocking behavior by interest groups looking to refute clear science to continue to turn a profit (and hope to continue to convince consumers to turn a blind eye). Just think about the first season of Mad Men, which, while obviously dramatized, did show Lucky Strike in a similar situation as Desert Sun.
When it became very, very clear that smoking cigarettes led to lung cancer, cigarette manufacturers tried desperately to find any and all flaws in the research, often locating a few shady scientists who would back their claims. They tried to send the message that low-tar, filtered, or other kinds of cigarettes were “safer.”
But that’s like saying a car accident in which a person is wearing knee-pads is safer than no car accident at all. It’s technically true (your knees are so protected!), but…it’s also not. And now, we know better. Very few people refute the fact that smoking causes cancer.
Unfortunately for the ITA, tanning is finally getting the attention it deserves. As prom (read: tanning) season approaches, lawmakers are eyeballing indoor beds (and the way they target teens) and cracking down on who can use them, and what kind of messages tanning salons can give to consumers. Additionally, potential consumers have started to hear the message: in the last 5 years, women havestarted to turn toward bottled tans, and away from beds.
Here’s a generally good rule of thumb: when doctors, dermatologists, and scientists link a purely recreational, easy-to-avoid behavior like tanning to cancer, and the people who are making money off that purely recreational, easy-to-avoid behavior try desperately to refute them, it’s best to err on the side of science and safety.