May 6, 2007 — -- On any given day, more than one million Americans go to a tanning salon.
This season, many of those flocking to tanning beds and booths are teenage girls getting ready for the prom. They say a tan makes them look better in their gowns, but brown skin comes with a price.
Now, one beauty pageant winner, who knows the dangers of tanning all too well, is trying to halt the trend.
When Brittany Leitz was crowned Miss Maryland, she was beaming with triumph. But her beauty pageant success masked a painful and ugly battle that left her scarred for life.
Two years ago, Leitz was diagnosed with melanoma, an aggressive and potentially deadly form of skin cancer. She didn't get cancer from sun-tanning, but from sun-less tanning. After baking her body under UV radiation in a tanning bed as often as four times a week for three years, she developed melanoma.
"I was definitely a tanorexic," she said. "I never thought I was dark enough."
Like many teenage girls, Leitz started tanning at the age of 17 to look "perfect" for prom. She didn't stop until she could no longer ignore a nickel-sized mole on her back that began to bleed.
Leitz had to undergo 25 surgeries for two years, an experience that changed her life and set her on a mission to help others.
Her target audience is teenagers. She reaches them in person at high schools and virtually though YouTube.
Leitz's heartfelt personal story has touched many young women, including 17-year old Stacia Womperski.
"It brought tears to my eyes because I could relate to her," Womperski said.
Womperski has been competing in beauty pageants since age eight, and going to tanning salons since age 14.
"I tan for cotillion, my formal dance as a sophomore, and that's when a lot of girls started going, but I'd already been going for three to four times a week for special events," she said.
But seeing graphic photos of Leitz's battle with cancer curbed Womperski's obsession with tan skin.
"I thought to myself, 'Wow, I'm never going tanning for the rest of my life,'" she said. "I don't want that to happen to me."
More than one million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in 2007, but Americans continue to put themselves at risk, especially teenagers who think they're too young to get cancer.
The Academy of American Dermatology found that 30 million Americans tan indoors every year, and almost 10 percent of them are teenagers. Some are tanning illegally, defying age restrictions in 26 states.
Studies done by the academy suggest people who keep going to tanning parlors before age 35 have a 75 percent higher chance of getting melanoma.
In the quest for beauty, Leitz and Womperski have learned the "perfect" tan comes at a steep price. They hope their peers realize the cost of the dangerous habit, too.
"I'm so lucky she's speaking out to people," Womperski said about Leitz. "Who knows, that could have been [me] a year or six months down the line."