A new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement strongly warns of the significant skin cancer risks of artificial tanning. But is your child listening?
These facts about the dangers of tanning don’t make for very sunny reading: Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) has dramatically increased melanoma risk in this country in the last 30 years. The most rapid increases of this lethal form of skin cancer have occurred among young white women, amounting to a 3.2 percent increase every year since 1992 among 15- to 39-year-olds. Melanoma is the second most common cancer among women in their 20s, and the third most common cancer among men in their 30s. Chronic UVR overexposure from the sun and artificial sources such as tanning beds also weakens the skin’s elasticity, resulting in sagging cheeks, deep facial wrinkles, and skin discoloration later in life, along with an increased risk of cataracts.
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According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), titled “Ultraviolet Radiation: A Hazard to Children and Adolescents,” the increasing popularity of tanning salons is one of the reasons we’re seeing these skin-cancer increases. (One recent analysis of tanning booths and skin cancer risk put tanning booths in the riskiest category, along with deadly cancer-causers like cigarettes and arsenic.)
THE DETAILS: Protecting your kids from the dangers of tanning isn’t always as easy as it sounds; for example, when your teenage daughter insists on a tanning visit before the big homecoming dance. Or when your son wants to “pre-tan” before his spring break trip to the beach. What’s a parent to do?
Start by realizing you have more authority than you may think. “Many states require parental consent for tanning under a certain age, and a lot of parents say yes and give permission without thinking about it,” says Sophie Balk, MD, attending pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, and lead author of the AAP report. It’s also important to take a long view of the dangers of tanning. “Parents might think that they have to pick their battles,” she explains. “Say their daughter is a straight-A student and a good kid and doesn’t smoke or drink, and wants to get a tan before the prom.” Her parent might decide this is not a battle to fight, and so the child gets in the habit of tanning. “What many parents don’t realize is that 5 to 10 years down the road, their child might get melanoma, and that the melanoma could be fatal,” Dr. Balk says.
WHAT IT MEANS: Instituting a tanning ban may be challenging, but parents need to lay down the law. “We are advocating so strongly in the report for laws prohibiting under-18 access to tanning salons,” says Dr. Balk. “In the meantime, we need to educate teens and their parents.” According to one recent study, 40 percent of the parents surveyed didn’t know that indoor tanning salons are harmful to kids. “We feel like once parents know the risks, they won’t have as much trouble just saying no,” she adds.
Here is Dr. Balk’s advice for parents of “tanners”:
• Talk about consequences.
While cancer is the most serious tanning danger, other consequences may make a bigger impression on teens. “Some kids think tans look healthier,” says Dr. Balk. “In these cases, tell your child that his or her skin will age much more rapidly and they will have wrinkles and saggy skin sooner than people who don’t tan.” In fact, there’s a study that shows this line of reasoning can change the behavior of some tanners.
• Redirect your child.
Some suffer from tanning addiction, says Dr. Balk. It relaxes them and makes them feel better about themselves. But she advises that parents stick to their guns and help those kids find healthier outlets. “Try to help them find other ways to feel better, such as with yoga or relaxation techniques,” she says. Trying a new sport such as running or cycling can be great, too; exercise can raise one’s “feel good” endorphin levels. “I’m a big fan of community service for teens. Giving back is such a good way to feel good about yourself, and teens need plenty of that.”
• Try going sunless.
If your child wants a tanner look for a specific event, check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database for a sunless tanning product that’s doesn’t contain hazardous chemicals.
• Remember the sun.
The sun’s ultraviolet rays can be dangerous too. To lower your child’s risk of damaged skin and worse problems later in life, the AAP report recommends that kids:
- Avoid sunburns,
- Wear protective clothing when out in the sun,
- Try to time activities for before or after periods of peak sun exposure (morning and late afternoon),
- Wear sunglasses,
- Apply and reapply sunscreen frequently.
Institute these behaviors when your kids are young, so they’ll consider it normal. And follow the same practices yourself; a good example is the most convincing argument.