Teen Tanning: Indoor Sizzle Can Overcome Parental Consent Laws

PHOTO Brittany Zele, inset, says she tanned until she was diagnosed with a form of melanoma.

Ten years ago, Brittany Zele, then 14, begged her mother for permission to go tanning. Although her mother eventually consented, Zele now wishes her mother hadn't.

"I needed a note from my mom, and she didn't want to let me go, and I kept bugging her," recalled Zele. "I tanned until I was diagnosed. I don't blame her. She didn't know any better."

Five years ago, while sitting on a swing with her mother and boyfriend, her mom said a mole on Zele's thigh didn't look right.

Zele went to see her dermatologist, who removed the mole. About a week and a half later, just before Thanksgiving, the dermatologist called back.

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Brittany Zele had melanoma.

Zele shared her story with ABCNews.com in the wake of a study published in the Archives of Dermatology this week, showing that, despite laws, researchers posing as 15-year-olds who had never tanned could, over the phone, get permission to tan at a few salons across the country without parental consent. The study estimated that 90 percent of salons in the U.S. require parental consent.

Researchers also found that at most salons they called, they could begin tanning more often than the government recommendation of three times a week. In 71 percent of the facilities, they could tan every day right away, despite the risks of melanoma and other skin cancers.

"The laws as they are currently written are not strong enough to keep teens from tanning," said Joni Mayer, a professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at San Diego State University and an author of the study. "Part of the reason is parents are giving their consent [to tan]."

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Many doctors expressed dismay at the state of regulation for the tanning industry.

"As a medical professional subject to intense regulation, it is amazing that the tanning industry is allowed to deliver intensive ultraviolet light to minors with a minimal amount of oversight and enforcement," said Dr. Seth J. Orlow, chairman of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine.

The tanning bed industry attacked the study, however, saying it did not highlight its findings on regulations.

"What is not being highlighted by the authors of this study is that the vast majority of tanning salons require parental consent before allowing minors to tan, regardless of whether or not state law requires them to do so. The tanning industry works with parents to ensure that minors are using sunbeds moderately and responsibly," said Dan Humiston, president of the Indoor Tanning Association, in a statement.

Humiston also pointed out that the researchers looked at frequency, but not the duration of visits to the tanning bed.

While Mayer acknowledged that the college-aged researchers posing as 15-year-olds had not actually gone to the tanning beds, but had merely called (since thousands of salons were included, that would have been financially impossible, said Mayer), she noted that some of the places may have stated a policy they would not have enforced had the students shown up.

'I didn't realize how serious melanoma is.'

Zele said she believes one of the problems with kids and parents when parents consent to let their kids tan is that they don't understand the severity of melanoma.

"Most people think melanoma [is] just your skin," she said. "It's very frustrating, because people don't realize it can go everywhere in your body."

While Zele ultimately recovered from melanoma, she recounts the severity of the treatment.

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