After several days of cloudy weather, most of us may not be worrying about getting too much sun. With prom and beach seasons approaching, many people are looking for ways to get a suntan going.
However, many medical professionals are concerned about overexposure to sunshine, specifically to ultraviolet rays, or UVR. Some who treat skin disorders are especially concerned about the use of tanning beds by young people.
WebMD reports UVR exposure damages fibers in our skin called elastin. That breakdown causes the skin to sag and stretch and to lose its ability to go back into shape after stretching.
The bottom line: UVR exposure can make us look older, sooner.
In February, researchers at Yale University released results of a study on UVR exposure. They found evidence of a chemical chain reaction that can damage DNA more than three hours after exposure. They said it’s not clear how many skin cancers may result from this previously unknown reaction.
Tanning beds have been the focus of attention of many health experts, because their UVR is more concentrated than the sun’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires sunlamps and tanning beds to carry a warning that people younger than 18 should not use these products.
An FDA website on tanning, found at fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/default.htm, declares repeated UV exposure from sunlamp products “poses a risk of skin cancer for all users.”
Jeffrey Shuren, the doctor in charge of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says, “the highest risk for skin cancer is in young persons under the age of 18 and people with a family history of skin cancer.”
Last July, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer.” The document notes that, while genetic factors — being fair-skinned, having a family history of skin cancer — may heighten a person’s risk, the most common types of skin cancer are strongly associated with UV radiation and that exposure to UV is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.
At least 42 states regulate the use of tanning beds. Eleven states ban their use by children younger than 18.
In Maine, anyone under age 14 may not use commercial tanning beds; 14- and 15-year-olds must have a parent’s permission.
A bill to raise the age to 18 passed two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill was introduced this year but did not pass.
Critics of regulation say links between UVR exposure and development of tumors are based on “circumstantial data and inference, rather than clinical trials and sound scientific data.”
Some also charge public cautions are aimed at younger women, while statistics show men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma.
Tanning isn’t just about perceived good looks. It’s a $5 billion industry that thrives based on what many consumers are told constitutes a “healthy look.”
The FDA disagrees, stating on its website, “UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin.” Visit the FDA website, FDA.gov, and search “tanning risks” to learn more about tanning beds in particular and the health risks of UVR exposure in general.
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