I felt the long, thin needle pierce my skin, and the local anesthetic stung as it spread around the small dark mole on my right arm. The dermatologist cut off a small piece of skin, and put it into some sort of vial to be sent off for testing. About two weeks later, I got the results. It was called Dysplastic Nevi — not skin cancer, but not normal either.
I’m lucky. Each year in the United States, biopsies like mine indicate new cases of skin cancer for 3.5 million Americans. Of those, 76,690 are invasive Melanoma, an extremely dangerous form of skin cancer that kills one American every 57 minutes. An increasing number of these incidences and deaths are among adolescent girls.
Despite widely publicized efforts to combat the disease and promote safe sun practices, rates of skin cancer continue to steadily climb, even as rates of other forms of cancer fall.
Increased incidence of skin cancer can probably be partly attributed to the thinning ozone layer. As more damage is done, more UVB rays penetrate the atmosphere and are absorbed by our skin. However, the environment is not entirely to blame. Coinciding with the increasing damage to the ozone layer has been, and continues to be, an increase in sun exposure and tanning bed use, especially among young women.
90 percent of skin cancers are caused by UV exposure. Try to recount each sunburn or dark tan you’ve ever had … I know I’ve lost count. I’ve had more than my fair share of sunburns, acquired on family vacations and summers sailing, wake boarding and playing tennis. I would lay out on beach towels and warm docks, tanning with friends. When I was 16 I began using tanning booths, only for a year or so, but long enough to damage my skin.
In 2010, 44 percent of 18-21 year-old non-Hispanic white women living in the Midwest reported to have been indoor tanning. Using a tanning bed for the first time before age 35 increases a person’s risk for melanoma by 59 percent. Their use continues to climb even as education about their dangers increases. I can distinctly remember disregarding them before going tanning with friends.
The users of these dangerous machines are often young people — 74 percent of indoor tanners are women ages 18-26 — who are highly susceptible to media influence. Coupled with the accessibility of tanning salons, it comes as no surprise that there’s a problem. Tan skin is often a mark of beauty and youthfulness in Western culture. While the media presents images of tanned, beautiful women, it fails to inform viewers that these models and actresses don’t often tan on the beach or at a tanning booth. Instead, their glow often comes from a professional spray tanner.
This fits with the disturbing trend of media portrayals of falsified women. Girls are tanned, stretched, thinned and re-proportioned on expensive computer programs. They are made up with more products and optical illusions than most ordinary women can afford or find the time to apply on a regular basis. This includes the application of full body makeup, or spray tans, used to make models and actresses appear tanner. While unsafe tanning practices can just be added to the long list of disorders caused by this type of distortion of beauty standards, it is no less important. Sexualizing and beautifying women seems effective in selling movie tickets, products of all kinds and attracting viewers. It’s also contributing to the rise in skin cancer.
Further compounding this problem is the availability of indoor tanning, a major source of harmful UV light for young women. There are several chains of competing salons, and a 2006 study found that there are more tanning salons than Starbucks, McDonalds, or other popular chains in many cities. Further, indoor tanning is less expensive than spray tanning and other substitutes. An unlimited month tanning package is $19.99 at Chili Peppers tanning, while spray tanning often costs a similar amount for one application that lasts about week. At expensive salons, it can cost upwards of $60 for spray tans and full body makeup. There are at home products sold at several price points, but self-applications often leaves inexperienced users looking orange and streaky.
Regulations on tanning salons are disturbingly relaxed. In Michigan, parental permission is required for minors, and must require eye protection. That’s it. I can’t speak for others, but as a 16-year-old, I regularly tanned without ever being asked for identification, and my parents certainly never gave permission. But, even if this law was properly enforced, stricter regulations are in order. The large number of tanning salons makes the task of enforcing rules difficult. However, economic regulation could reduce the externality caused by the industry, and save the lives of people who would have otherwise used the dangerous technology. By taxing indoor tanning salons, making their prices more similar to those of other substitutes, less people would be willing or able to pay for indoor tanning sessions, or may buy less of them.
Further, due to unscrupulous media and advertising practices and societal pressures, it is unlikely that minors can make informed decisions on indoor tanning and skincare. Michigan should join other states like California and Illinois, which ban indoor tanning for people under 18.
More responsible media practices and reduced use of tanning salons can help decrease rates of this dangerous cancer. As summer approaches, it’s important to remember to be safe in the sun, or at least weigh the possibility of developing cancer later on with your wish to look tanner. Personally, I’ve decided that it’s just not worth it.
Victoria Noble can be reached at email@example.com.