Article date: May 27, 2010

By Rebecca V. Snowden


People who use tanning beds are more likely to develop melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, than never users, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota. The more regularly a person frequents tanning salons, the greater the risk, the study shows.

In July 2009, after a comprehensive review of the available research, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)elevated tanning devices to its highest cancer risk category – “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1). Despite this risk, approximately 30 million Americans still visit indoor tanning salons each year. That may be at least in part because the tanning industry has pointed to limitations in previous studies and continues to tout the purported health benefits of tanning, including vitamin D production.

The new study, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, was designed to help answer more definitively whether tanning bed use is linked to skin cancer.

“Most reports were not able to adjust for sun exposure, confirm a dose-response, or examine specific tanning devices,” said study author DeAnn Lazovich, PhD, professor of epidemiology, University of Minnesota School of Publish and co-leader of the Masonic Cancer Center’s Prevention and Etiology Research Program. “Our population-based, case-control study was conducted to address these limitations.”

What this study found

The researchers, led by Lazovich, collected detailed information on the tanning habits of more than 1,100 Minnesotans aged 25 to 59 who had been diagnosed with melanoma between July 2004 and December 2007, as well as a matched group of more than 1,100 people without melanoma.

The researchers gathered data on tanning bed use, including years of use, age at which use began, and the specific devices used, as well as other factors such as age, sunscreen use, and family history of melanoma.

According to their findings, people who had ever used an indoor tanning device were about 75% more likely to have developed melanoma. Frequent users – defined as using a tanning device for at least 50 hours, at least 100 sessions, or at least 10 years – were 2.5 to 3 times more likely to develop melanoma than those who had never used them. The risk went up with increasing tanning bed use, the study showed, and was elevated regardless of the type of device.

“We found that it didn’t matter the type of tanning device used; there was no safe tanning device,” Lazovich said. “We also found – and this is new data – that the risk of getting melanoma is associated more with how much a person tans and not the age at which a person starts using tanning devices. Risk rises with frequency of use, regardless of age, gender, or device.”

Lazovich and her team’s findings are published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Melanoma on the rise

The number of new cases of melanoma in the United States has been increasing for at least 30 years. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 68,720 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States during 2009. Melanoma is 10 times more common in whites than in African Americans. It is slightly more common in men than in women.

More than 2 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States. That’s more than cancers of the prostate, breast, lung, colon, uterus, ovaries, and pancreas combined.

Most skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Much of this exposure comes from the sun, but it also comes from manmade sources, such as tanning beds.

Because of the popularity of tanning among young people, both the World Health Organization and the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection recommend that the use of indoor tanning should be restricted in anyone under the age of 18.

The American Cancer Society recommends people avoid tanning beds altogether. For information on how you can lower your risk of skin cancer, see Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.