The rise in skin cancer has exposed teens’ use of the sun and tanning beds
By Jenna Spoont & Heather Ward, Managing Editor & Co-editor-in-chief
Junior Jenna Stewart lies down, gets comfortable and soaks in the blasting music, whirling fans and beaming lights. She is in a tanning bed—her escape from reality—and, for Stewart, an almost daily ritual. She usually tans four to five times per week, going a minimum of two times per week.
“I just don’t even think about [the risks]. I don’t want to know that I can have skin cancer; I just don’t think about it, I just [tan],” Stewart said.
Junior Bobbie Thorn describes tanning as peaceful and relaxing. Before prom, Thorn bought a subscription to a local tanning salon. But after watching the YouTube video, “Dear 16-year-old Me,” Thorn changed her opinion on tanning.
“I saw [the video] when I still had my subscription, so once it runs out I’m not going back anymore. It’s not worth it,” Thorn said.
The five minute public service announcement, created by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund, went viral among the Conestoga community when health classes were assigned a project by health teacher Marcia Mariani to send the video to at least 50 people, using Facebook, email or another source of online communication.
“It’s not just about ‘let’s learn about skin cancer, and then never talk about it again.’ It’s about learning about skin cancer, and then putting on the sunscreen, because this is killing people,” Mariani said.
Inside the salon
According to recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer has become common in young adults and is the most common type of cancer in the United States. The CDC also named melanoma as the deadliest type of skin cancer in its May 10 press release. A melanoma develops on the skin, often from a mole, and creates tumors. Melanomas are often formed because of overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays.
“Most of these skin cancers are generated when you’re 15 or 16 [when you get] that sunburn at the shore,” said dermatologist Dr. Scott Schafrank, of Main Line Dermatology. “It’s those types of burns early in life, especially off of the face, that lead to moles later in life which cause the melanoma.”
Although everyone may be at risk of skin cancer because of sun exposure, the use of a tanning bed increases a person’s risk of cancer by 75 percent. More than 30 million Americans, including 2.3 million teens, go to tanning salons annually, according to research by the Food and Drug Administration.
“I think that indoor tanning salons are one of the biggest risk factors for melanoma in young women. There really is no health benefit to indoor tanning salons,” said dermatologist Dr. Bruce Brod, of Dermatology Associates of Lancaster and the University of Pennsylvania. “Any ultraviolet light, whether it’s from the sun or indoor tanning salons can cause skin cancer, and particularly melanoma.”
Currently there are no laws in Pennsylvania on juvenile use of tanning salons. Tanning salons, instead, have their own protocols. Multiple local salons require parental consent for minors to tan, citing protection from potential lawsuits.
According to Lisa Newcomb, the National Director of the Melanoma International Foundation (MIF), on “tanning salons, I would [tell people to] stop now. There’s legislation that they’re trying to push through across the country to make it illegal [or] to make it so you have to be over 18 or have parental permission depending on the state. To me, there’s no compromise on that. It’s not safe. Just don’t do it.”
Although the risks of tanning are high, many teenagers find themselves unable to stop.
“The problem is you don’t notice the difference between one tan and the next, but you definitely do between the first and the last tan so you want to keep going back,” Thorn said.
According to a study published in the Archives of Dermatology and a study done at Wake Forest University, exposure to UV light for just 10 minutes twice each week causes an endorphin release (the body’s natural painkillers) and without that release it was shown that people suffered a withdrawal similar to that from narcotics.
“I definitely feel better after tanning,” said junior Caroline McGinnis, an employee of Endless Tans in Berwyn. “When I start to lose [my tan], I have a desire to go back.”
The Archives of Dermatology also reported a strong correlation between tanning and an underlying addiction. The members of the study that qualified as addicted to tanning experienced twice as much angst as those who tanned without being addicted. The study attributed this to deeper mental distress in those participants.
“You just think, ‘oh, yeah, I’m going to look nice and tan after I’m done’,” Stewart said. “So it just gets addicting because you want to be really, really tan.”
Mariani believes that tanning comes back to a self-esteem issue prevalent in teenagers today.
“I think that our obsessions about what’s on the outside go way beyond thin or the clothes you’re wearing or the way your hair is,” Mariani said. “I don’t think people are really connecting self-image and self-esteem with tanning, but [tanning is] just another way that teenagers are able to feel better about their appearance.”
Recently, a New Jersey mother stunned the nation when she allegedly brought her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning booth. Although Patricia Krentcil, the ‘Tanning mom,’ denied the claims, her story became the laughingstock of the media.
“I don’t think anyone should ever bring their [five]-year-old daughter into a tanning salon,” McGinnis said. “That’s not right.”
In the past decade, tanning has gained an increased role in the media. The hit reality television series “Jersey Shore” uses the slogan “GTL,” or “Gym, tan, laundry,” conveying the importance of being tan in the eyes of others.
Studies have indicated that 85 percent of Americans under the age of 25 believe people look better when they are tan.
“I think it’s just because everybody honestly wants to be tan,” Stewart said. “I think it’s a trend at our school; you go tanning.”
However, according to research done at Northwestern University, frequent tanning leads to an increase in wrinkles at a younger age. UV rays damage the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin that allow it to bounce back from stretching and prevent wrinkles.
The study also showed that teens were more likely to stop tanning because of the potential of obtaining wrinkles, rather than because of the risk of skin cancer.
“They’re not worried about skin cancer, but they are worried about getting wrinkled and being unattractive,” Dr. June Robinson of Northwestern University said in a press release. “The fear of looking horrible trumped everything else.”
“It’s challenging to have someone that you love go through something so serious,” Stava said. “Especially with melanoma, I feel like there’s more awareness of it now, but when my mom went through everything, we didn’t know that much about it.”
Stava said she felt honored to take part in the Safe From the Sun Walk & 5K Run on May 12 at Villanova University with her baby daughter.
After emotionally reminiscing the life of her mother, Stava gave advice to those who have embarked on a similar journey with their loved one.
“Just be as strong as you can be,” Stava said. “Just having enough people around you to support you is the most important thing that you can do.”
Catherine Poole, president and founder of the MIF, battled melanoma 22 years ago. She later started a forum on the MIF website for caregivers and those dealing with the disease, regarding treatment plans, doctors and moral support.
“My biggest message to people is check your skin. You know your body better than any doctor does, so check your skin regularly. If you see something that’s different, new, has changed, get it checked,” Poole said. “When the disease spreads, it goes to your brain, it goes to your liver and your lungs and it kills you, quickly. We have some therapies, but not good ones. Find it early; get cured.”
Melanoma kills more young women than any other cancer, including breast cancer, according to Poole. She said that melanoma does not have the same amount of camaraderie and awareness as breast cancer does. In order to gather patients and supporters, Poole organized the annual Safe from the Sun Walk in 2003.
“This event is actually the largest [melanoma event] in the world,” Poole said. “This is like family reunion day for a lot of people that have lost people or have somebody fighting the disease.”
Sophomore Jordan Sticklin ran with a team of 20 people to support his neighbor, who is currently battling melanoma.
“It’s a great cause and I know that there are a lot of people out there who have melanoma, and that they might not even know about it,” Sticklin said. “And it’s important to raise money for it and be aware.”
“We’re still a long way from an ideal treatment,” Brod said. “Catching it early makes all of the difference in the world.”
Junior Min Chun found a mole on her skin when she was in seventh grade and decided to get it checked out by a dermatologist.
“There was a little something above my ear and they thought it was skin cancer, so over the summer I had an operation to remove it,” Chun said. “It definitely made me more careful around the sun.”
Students who desire a healthy glow have other options, such as spray tans or the use of tanning moisturizers. Junior Molly Dudrear applied Jergens natural glow lotion every night for three days before junior prom.
“I just wanted to stay away from anything that could potentially cause skin cancer,” Dudrear said. “I just wanted to go with the healthier option.”
Dudrear said that her family certainly recognizes the importance of applying sunscreen.
“We make sure to reapply after being in the water for too long. We call everybody out at the same time and we all apply the sunscreen together to make sure we’re all covered,” Dudrear said.
Chun decided to take the healthier option as well. She got a spray tan and used the Jergens cream, but still believes that the sun gives the best tan.
“I used a cream … and I thought it was better than a spray tan. It was simple—you just put it on. You don’t have to drive anywhere and if you don’t like it you can just take it off. I think people want something quicker, though, because you have to put [the lotion] on repeatedly,” Chun said.
Sunless tans, including creams and self-tanner can be purchased in drug stores, and most tanning salons offer spray tans as an alternative to UV ray beds. Although the FDA is still conducting tests on many sunless tanning products, they have been proven to be safer than UV rays as long as they are combined with a sun protection factor (SPF).
Although the staggering statistics about skin cancer are rising, exposure to the sun is inevitable, especially with summer just around the corner.
“As for being outside, I think it’s about making smart choices,” Newcomb said.
Newcomb suggested that the use of sunscreen and protective clothing, such as hats, can make all of the difference.
“If kids know that all of [their] friends are jumping on this bandwagon and realizing that [skin cancer] can happen, maybe we’ll all start to be a little more accepting of the skin we’re in,” Mariani said.
Jenna Spoont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.