May 15, 2012 -- On Friday students at Maynard High School in Maynard, Mass. made good on an important promise: no tanning before this year's prom.
Many of the students signed a pledge in February that they would skip the tanning bed and sunbathing before prom this year in an effort to reduce their risk of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.
Allison Bosse, the high school senior who organized the pledge, said convincing everyone to flaunt their pale skin was no easy task.
"Our school is known for a lot of people tanning. Kids start in March because they want to be tan in their dresses for prom," she said.
Bosse said the pressure for students to get a golden glow is so great that freshmen start visiting tanning beds even though they don't go to the prom.
Bosse said she wanted to educate her classmates about the dangers of tanning. She set up tables at lunch and started asking for people to sign the no-tanning pledge. Of the school's 283 seniors, 209 signed the pledge.
"A couple of people said 'I like tanning too much, I can't sign that. I won't get skin cancer,'" Bosse said. "But it seemed like a lot really listened and weren't going to do it anymore."
The pledges taken at Maynard High School are part of a growing trend at high schools around the U.S., aimed at educating students about the connection between tanning and skin cancer.
Rates of melanoma have been rising steadily among young adults for the past few decades. In April, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that rates of melanoma increased by a factor of more than six from 1970 to 2009, and the rates were highest among young women. Though any exposure to ultraviolet rays can increase the risk of melanoma, experts believe the rise is linked to widespread use of tanning beds among teenagers.
Dr. Jennifer Stein, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, said many of her young patients with melanoma say they started tanning in high school for events like prom or spring break.
"There's a lot of pressure for teenagers to look tan," Stein said. "It's really important to try to change the way teenagers think about tanning beds."
That's just what Deb Girard, executive director of the Melanoma Foundation of New England, is trying to do. Since 2008, the organization has sponsored its "Your Skin is In" program for high schools and colleges in the area, trying to teach more students about the health risks of tanning. Girard said the program's first step was targeting high school students before prom season.
"The number of kids that report tanning for the prom is extremely high," Girard said. "This is the age group that has a high utilization of tanning beds, and it's for very event-specific kinds of things."
Since the start of the program, Girard said the program has generated about 6,000 pledges from students each year. It's hard to know just how many actually stick to their promise, but Girard said even students who don't sign the pledge still get the facts about tanning and skin cancer.
Bosse said her classmates at Maynard High School came to prom pale and proud.
"More people showed up with their natural skin color than in previous years, and everyone looked beautiful," she said.
She said she hopes her classmates' pledge to steer clear of tanning beds will last long beyond prom season.
"You don't have to be tan. Natural is just as good," Bosse said.