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.
One in Five Americans Get Skin Cancer
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.
The Price of Bronzed Beauty
So why is a bronze hue worth the risk for so many people?
Many doctors say it's the pressure of reaching perfection.
"[The study] speaks volumes about the increased pressure that young women face to look a certain way or fit into some sort of ideal physical image, even when there are potentially deadly consequences down the road," said Collins.
And Karcher said that young people sometimes tan for short-term fixes.
"It's hard to get through to some of those 18- to 24-year-olds," said Karcher. "They're educated with income, they've got the world by the balls and they want to look their best, but they have to understand that they don't look better."
When patients tell her that they use indoor tanning booths, Karcher tries to show them the long-term aesthetic effects.
"When I talk to patients who use indoor tanning, I tell them I've had three skin cancers because I was tan all the time," said Karcher. "I show them my scars. When they find out they're going to have scars and wrinkles on their face and chest, they usually think differently."
Vilma Cokkinides, PhD, strategic director of risk factors surveillance for the American Cancer Society, said that information on tanning must be more readily available to educate people on the risks.
"We need to continue educating people," said Cokkinides. "Right now, indoor tanning is winning in marketing. We are constantly exposed to tanned women. These are subliminal messages saying that's the color we need to achieve."
Collins agrees, and says that it's important for the public to be proactive in protecting their skin by wearing a sunblock with at least SPF 30 every day and examining their own skin every month to look for changes.
Contrary to some beliefs, Collins also said that it is very difficult to reach adequate vitamin D levels from UV light without increasing one's risk of cancer. And, because tanning beds carry a whopping dose of UV radiation, it is more dangerous to get a "base tan" from indoor booths than the natural sun.
"It is important for everyone to know that there is no safe amount of tanning and that even when there is no sunburn, UV exposure still results in damage to the skin and ultimately leads to skin cancer and premature aging," said Collins.
The Indoor Tanning Association, or ITA, a group that represents thousands of indoor tanning manufacturers, distributors, facility owners and members from other support industries, was created to "protect the freedom of individuals to acquire a suntan, via natural or artificial light."
The ITA lists effects of indoor tanning, including positive psychological and physical effects of ultraviolet light, and the exposure to vitamin D.
But even on its homepage, a notice says: You don't need to become tan for your skin to make Vitamin D. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation may increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer and can cause serious eye injury.
A Brief History of the Suntan
But unlike the study's findings, well-to-do women did not always want sun-kissed skin. Prior to the 20th century, women went to great lengths to whiten their skin, even using chalk and arsenic in hopes of looking pale and fragile.
The rise of the suntanned skin is often attributed to Coco Chanel. After getting a sunburn while vacationing on the French Riviera, Chanel became an accidental trendsetter and people began emulating her golden look.
With the later introduction of bikini and bronzing creams, the quest for tanned skin has been on the steady rise among many people.
But doctors hope that the style will change. And the Skin Cancer Foundation hopes that Go with Your Own Glow, a campaign that encourages women to embrace their natural healthy skin tones, will catch on.
"We're trying to change the aesthetic and visual perception of tanning," said Karcher.
Choi hopes to see the same changes within the skin community.
"Body satisfaction is a very important message," said Choi. "You are who you are, and people need to know they don't need to be pursuing a tan in order to feel good about themselves."