Dr. Cheryl Karcher hates to admit it, but when she was a teen, she too wanted the bronze bombshell look that is so appealing to many Americans. As a resident of Daytona Beach, Fl., Karcher hit the tanning booths, slathered on the baby oil, and even lay out with a silver metallic UV reflector around her neck.
But now Karcher sings a very different tune. After three different skin cancer lesions found on her chest, Karcher is a major advocate for sun safety.
"I was stupid," said Karcher, an educational spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation and a New York City dermatologist. "I was 18 and a student at the University of Florida, and I thought the tanner I was, the more popular I'd be. To be fair, though, we didn't know about [the dangers] as much back then."
Now, a few decades later, doctors and researchers have highlighted definitive risks of exposure to ultraviolet light. To add to that knowledge, a new study from University of Minnesota researchers offers the latest statistics on indoor tanning use.
Researchers found that women are three times as likely to use indoor tanning facilities as men, and almost one third of 18- to 24-year-old women went to a tanning booth in the last 12 months. The use of indoor tanning went down as the women's age went up.
And when researchers asked study participants to list ways to avoid skin cancer, only about 13 percent of women and 4 percent of men suggested that people should avoid tanning booths.
"Tanning beds actually cause cancer," said Kelvin Choi, PhD, a research associate at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and lead author of the study. "I was surprised to see such a knowledge gap there."
Scientists analyzed data from more than 2,800 Caucasian study participants ages 18 to 64 who answered questions related to lifestyle, demographics and indoor tanning use. About a third of those participants also answered questions regarding skin cancer prevention.
The research showed that women who used indoor tanning booths were more likely to be from the Midwest and the South. They were also more likely to use spray tan products. And, as age increased, indoor tanning use decreased.
Harvard Department of Dermatology's Dr. Kristina Collins said that she is, unfortunately, not surprised by the results of the study.
"I see many young patients that use tanning beds, and sadly, I also see the results of excess UV exposure in the form of skin cancer," said Collins. "The popularity of tanning has certainly contributed to the increased incidence of melanoma, as well as other forms of skin cancer."
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in Americans. About one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives.
And in 2007, the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency of Research on Cancer declared sources of radiation from artificial lights, like tanning beds, as carcinogenics, or cancer-causing substances.
Despite these statistics, the indoor tanning industry, estimated at $2.6 billion, continues to grow.
So why is a bronze hue worth the risk for so many people?
Many doctors say it's the pressure of reaching perfection.