"Fake-baking" in a commercial tanning bed will no longer be an option for pasty, prom-bound teens in Colorado if state lawmakers approve a bill banning the use of artificial tanning devices by children under 18, even with a doctor's recommendation.
If it passes the state Senate, the ban could take effect as early as July 1, making Colorado one of a handful of states to enact the toughest teen tanning laws in the nation.
A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 21 percent of all high school girls engage in indoor tanning, exposing skin to concentrated UVA and UVB radiation until the cells fight back by producing more pigment, creating a tan. Though most salons already adhere to voluntary policies limiting use by children - including minimum age requirements and signed parental consent or accompaniment - Colorado currently has no legal restrictions on tanning bed use by minors, who represent an estimated 5 to 10 percent of all indoor tanners. Similar bills have failed to earn the needed legislative support in the past.
"Killing our kids"
Equating a ban to laws establishing a minimum age for cigarette and alcohol consumption, proponents say it's a no-brainer for the state to do everything in its power to keep harmful ultraviolet rays away from the youthful population most vulnerable to them.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., affecting an estimated one in five Americans. It's also the most preventable form of the disease. While a majority of skin cancers are highly treatable if caught early, studies have shown that frequent exposure to UV light, especially when a person is under 35, can increase risks of developing the deadliest type of skin cancer, melanoma, by up to 75 percent. A history of intense exposure and blistering sunburns in childhood has also been shown to greatly increase an individual's chance of developing skin cancer later in life.
"We know that UV radiation causes skin cancer. We need to regulate this for kids and teens who might not realize that 10 to 15 years later it can increase their risk of getting melanoma," said Dr. Vishal Rana, a hematologist/oncologist at University of Colorado Health at Memorial Hospital. "I think it's establishing a bad pattern early on. If you're an adult, you understand the risk and can make that decision. A 16-year-old might not be able to understand how risky a tanning bed is."
The sponsor of the bill, Democratic Rep. Cherylin Peniston, is optimistic about its prospects this year.
"We are killing our kids by frying them in tanning salons," Peniston said. "People understand the gravity of this, because we've been working on it for years and years."
Also optimistic this year is Jodi Duke, a 37-year-old melanoma survivor from Aurora. She says emerging evidence about the dangers of youth tanning bed use has helped change lawmakers' minds from previous years.
"There was a lot of talk about nannying people. That was a fair argument at the time, but I think we've come a long way," said Duke, who started going to tanning beds at 16 and was diagnosed with cancer two years later.
A decision for parents
Both the American Academy of Dermatology Association and the World Health Organization oppose minors' use of indoor tanning devices. The AADA supports a full ban on the production and sale of all indoor tanning equipment for nonmedical purposes.
But not everyone wants to see indoor tanning restricted to older teens and adults. Republicans call the proposed ban a legislative overreach that encroaches on the rights of parents to make what they feel are the best decisions for their children. The tanning industry maintains that health risks have been exaggerated and that controversy has overshadowed the beneficial effects of limited, regulated UV exposure.
Ultraviolet light like that emitted from the sun and tanning beds fuels the body's production of vitamin D, essential for the absorption of calcium and immune system function. People deficient in the "sun vitamin" may face increased risks of developing certain types of cancer, heart disease and depression, among other ailments.
The medical counterpoint: A fair-skinned person can absorb enough radiation to produce more than 10 times the recommended daily dose of vitamin D by spending 10 minutes in the midday sun in shorts and tank top, sans sunscreen. "There's no health benefit to indoor tanning. People just want to get tan. They think they look good. The benefits are all cosmetic," said hematologist/oncologist Rana. "You don't even need to get a sunburn to get your skin damaged enough to cause cancer later in life."
Everything in moderation
Indoor tanning has long been a popular group activity among older teen girls in the run-up to school dances or swimsuit season.
Before allowing her then-17-year-old daughter to visit a salon, Katelyn Recla's mom made it clear that indoor tanning should be reserved for "special occasions" only.
"My mom let me do it for prom. I'd do it for a month, and go every other day and just build up a tan before the dance," said Recla, of Colorado Springs, who's now 20. Recla and her friends recently signed up for a package of sessions at a local tanning salon to prepare for an upcoming trip to Las Vegas.
"Tanning is an exciting part of getting ready for fun things. I think it's just like anything, OK in moderation," Recla said. "I definitely think there should be a cutoff age, like 14 or 15, but if you're an older teen or in high school, you should be able to do it with parental consent."
Katrina Henke of Colorado Springs admits she was a bit too naive for her first tanning bed visit when she was 16, but says the industry - and consumers - have changed in the eight years since.
"My friends were all tanning a lot and they told me to do the same amount of time as they did, which was the maximum time of about 15 minutes. My first experience wasn't the best," said Henke, now 24, who doesn't recall anyone at the salon warning her that first-timers, especially very light-skinned ones, should keep ray time to a minimum, say, five minutes at most.
"I didn't notice a change in the color, but my skin itched like crazy. I was burning alive," Henke said.
These days, everyone knows chronic tanning is bad for you and leads to cancer and premature aging, she said. Tanning salons limit session times and the beds themselves bear warning messages.
"I think tanning salons now are better about counseling people about the risks, especially if you're really white like me," said Henke, who believes that outlawing indoor tanning for those under 18 is unnecessary and sends a conflicting message.
"Considering there are 16-year-olds that can get tattoos or piercings with a parent's consent, I think it should be up to the parent."
Kristen Wyatt of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364
Skin cancer facts
- The American Cancer Society estimates there were 76,000 new cases and nearly 9,200 deaths from melanoma in 2012.
- Risk factors for developing the deadly form of skin cancer include suffering burns or blisters from UV rays in childhood and adolescence, fair skin with freckles and moles, and a family history of the disease.
- To lower risk, avoid exposure to sunlight when rays are the strongest, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and avoid indoor tanning devices and sun lamps.
- If spending time in the sun, always use a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher (and be sure to reapply often), cover exposed skin with clothing and wear a hat and sunglasses
The American Cancer Society, cancer.org