You’re probably well aware of the many concerns your parents had when they dropped you off on your first day at the University of Michigan. Will you make good grades? What will your friend group be like? Can Coach Harbaugh really turn the football team around?

While worries like these are commonplace around Ann Arbor this time of year, another concern should also come to mind: the growing popularity of tanning beds in apartment buildings for students on and near campus. An increasing number of studies show that this trend shouldn’t be ignored. Experts agree that indoor tanning has contributed to the recent rise in melanoma cases and other skin cancers in young people in the United States.

Melanoma is a dangerous and potentially lethal form of skin cancer that develops in the pigment-producing cells that give your skin its color. The exact cause of melanoma is thought to be a combination of factors, but exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight or indoor tanning beds is a primary determinant of your risk of disease.  

Indoor tanning has long been popular among college-age students. In fact, researchers estimate that nearly one-third of white women ages 18 to 25 have used an indoor tanning bed in the past year. Now, here is the part that should keep your parents (and you) up at night: Researchers from the University of Massachusetts reported earlier this year that almost half of the 125 universities surveyed had indoor tanning beds available on campus or at apartment buildings near campus. The vast majority of these facilities were available free of charge. That’s right — free. And the situation in Ann Arbor is no different.

We recently surveyed nine popular apartment buildings in Ann Arbor that primarily cater to college students and found that seven of these facilities offer their residents the use of indoor tanning beds free of charge. The reason for this amenity? Providing free tanning is a popular selling point to prospective tenants and owning these beds is relatively easy.

Because apartment complexes are considered to be private residences, Michigan’s Public Act 368 of 2008, which sets legal standards for commercial salons regarding tanning safety, does not apply. Federal guidelines suggest that tanning bed operators display information on the risks of tanning, but do not mandate this action. Of the nine complexes that we surveyed, four include information about tanning risks in the lease, while two have a separate form on tanning risks that residents are required to sign prior to accessing this amenity. Just three of the nine buildings have visible signs displaying information about risks in the tanning bed rooms. Use of tanning beds is unlimited at five of the seven complexes with beds. The only safety standard in place is that all beds automatically turn off after a predetermined amount of time set by the manufacturer, usually 10 to 20 minutes. Notably, the two properties that do not offer tanning beds refuse to do so out of concern that tanning is unhealthy.   

So what’s the big deal? Why call out these buildings when students could just as easily go to one of the many commercial tanning salons in Ann Arbor?

For one, researchers at the University of Texas Dell Medical School have recently pointed out that private apartment buildings are less likely to have adequate safety standards in place, such as protective eyewear, sanitation and restrictions on access for minors. But perhaps more importantly, research has also shown that the closer you live to tanning facilities, the more likely you are to tan. Moreover, your chances of developing melanoma increase substantially when you begin using indoor tanning beds at a young age. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has reported that your lifetime risk of developing melanoma increases by 75 percent if you start using tanning beds before the age of 35.

While cancer may seem like a faraway concern when you’re in your teens or 20s, unfortunately melanoma and other types of skin cancers often affect people in their 20s and 30s. The incidence of melanoma is on the rise, particularly in young people.

Researchers at the National Toxicology Program have found that as many as three out of four cases of melanomas in people ages 18 to 29 can be attributed to tanning bed use. Even if you don’t develop cancer, the skin damage caused by indoor tanning can affect your appearance, leading to premature wrinkles, skin biopsies and excisions of worrisome spots — all of which can be permanently disfiguring. So the next time you feel the urge to go to a tanning bed, be sure to weigh the risks and benefits. Keep in mind that the temporary bronzed appearance you’re after is just that — all too short-lived.

Joan Leavens, Tyler Menge and Taylor Swabash are fourth-year medical students at the University of Michigan Medical School.  

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