March 25, 2010 -- Katie Donnar, 18, of Vincennes, Ind., was a cheerleader in middle school when she talked her mother into letting her use a tanning bed twice a week.
"Everyone else was tan and I didn't want to be the odd one," Donnar said. "So I tanned so I could fit in."
While preparing for the Miss Indiana pageant, she discovered a brown spot on her leg that she had never noticed before, she said. And, at age 17, Donnar was diagnosed with an early stage of melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer.
"As a 17-year-old I was just so confused," she said. "The people I knew with skin cancer were a lot older and had been in the sun their [whole] life."
Efforts to Change the Tanning Industry
Tanning salon businesses, one of the many industries hard hit by the recession, may now feel more heat with the passage of the Obama administration's new health care bill.
The bill includes a 10 percent tax on individuals receiving indoor tanning services, and the initiative is expected to generate $2.7 billion over 10 years to help fund the health care overhaul.
The Indoor Tanning Association, a Washington-based trade group, estimated the tax would hit 18,000 retail businesses nationwide, "harming these companies and jeopardizing the thousands of jobs they generate."
But for some organizations, an increased tax is not enough to curb the use of tanning beds. Minors should altogether be banned from using indoor tanning beds because of their health dangers, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Tanning beds are currently considered class I medical devices by the FDA, which means they are subject to relatively few regulations.
The FDA is scheduled to meet with its Medical Devices Advisory Panel today to review the classification of tanning beds. If the FDA decides to reclassify indoor tanning beds as class II devices with restrictions, it could mean that minors could be prevented from indoor tanning and that a registry could be required to monitor use.
National organizations such as the Skin Cancer Foundation, American Cancer Society and American Academy of Dermatologists, along with melanoma survivors, are also expected to testify to urge the FDA to reclassify.
Turning Up the Heat on Tanning Beds
Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers among young adults in the United States, and the rates of skin cancer among Americans of all ages continue to rise.
While genetics play a large part in a person's cancer risk, many studies suggest that exposure to ultraviolet, or UV, light and the use of tanning beds at a young age is a major cause of skin cancer.
More than three-quarters of all skin cancer-related deaths are from melanoma, according to Dr. Allen Halpern, vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation and director of the dermatology service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. And about one person dies of melanoma every hour in the United States, he said.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a group affiliated with the World Health Organization, recently added tanning beds to its "Group One" list, which identifies the most harmful forms of radiation.
The recent evidence pointing to the dangers of tanning, along with pressure from Congress, prompted the FDA to convene and discuss reclassification.
Finding a Glowing Alternative
While there are many products besides tanning beds that tout glowing results, many are not as safe an alternative as they seem, according to Halpern.
For many Americans who live in warm climates year-round, the cheapest alternative may be to skip the salon and hit the beach. Although exposure to sunlight generates vitamin D, even a short stint in the sun can pose a health risk, according to Halpern.
"Going out in the sun won't give you calcium, so unless you take [supplements if you're deficient], regardless, you're still not getting the potential benefit of Vitamin D," he said. "And so, for my mind, the answer is protecting yourself as much as possible from ultra-violet exposure; we don't want people to give up their outdoor activities, we want them to be healthy."
Sunless tanning, otherwise known as spray-on tans, seems to be the safest alternative to tanning. Although Halpern said some of his patients ask if it is safe, he is not quick to recommend it, because it "promotes the overall social aesthetic of a tan."
"I [would like] people not to desire the spray-on tan, but if they're going to get a tan that is the only way I would have them do it," he said.