Despite widespread warnings about skin damage, tanning is as popular as ever, and skin cancer is on the rise among adults 40 and under.
Josephine Marcotty, Star Tribune
For Becky Bond there's nothing quite like the golden glow of a sun tan. Sure, there may be a price someday -- skin cancer. But like many other young adults, she doesn't worry about it today.
"People think it's a small price to pay for looking good now," said Bond, 30, who used to work at a tanning salon in Minneapolis and now works at H. Design beauty salon, also in Minneapolis. "If I have a tan, I don't have to pay as much attention to my hair or my make-up," she said.
Skin cancer, the most common of all cancers, is on the rise, and it's showing up with increasing frequency among younger adults. One in five people can expect to get skin cancer at some point in their lives -- either the minor form that can disfigure, or the malignant melanoma. If the malignant form spreads, it's almost always incurable.
Most skin cancers appear in people over age 50, and the DNA damage that led to the cancer started with a sunburn or tan they got decades earlier. But experts are increasingly alarmed at the rate at which younger adults -- who know far more about the consequences of UV radiation than their parents did -- are putting themselves at risk for cancer and damaged skin later in life.
Melanoma is the most common malignancy among adults aged 25 to 29. And the most common type of skin cancer, the nonmelanoma basal cell, is on the increase as well -- especially among women. Last year a Mayo Clinic study of 500 Minnesota adults found that between 1976 and 2003 the number of such cancers in women tripled, reaching 31.6 women per 100,000 population. Among men, basal cell carcinoma rates rose from 23 to 27 per 100,000.
That still doesn't come close to the number among adults older than 50, which, in the Mayo study, was 124 to 175 per 100,000 population. Still, it's a hint that the skin cancer rates won't be going down any time soon.
Mayo researchers said that about 40 percent of the basal cell carcinomas in people under 40 were on parts of the body that the sun rarely sees. And that means tanning beds were the likely culprit.
Tanning beds have been around for decades. These days, many such salons brag that their equipment emits a minimum of the harmful UVB radiation that cause sunburns. But all of them still emit high concentrations of UVA, the long-wave radiation that penetrates the skin more deeply to tan. And those are the rays that age the skin and cause just as much damage to DNA, resulting in cancer, experts said.
"The amount of UV light from tanning beds is excessive," said Dr. Kim Phillips, a Mayo Clinic dermatologist. "It damages the skin and causes aging and skin cancers," she said.
Salon tanning is more popular than ever, especially among young women and teenage girls. A recent survey of 10,000 kids by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 14 percent of girls between the ages of 12 and 18 said they used tanning beds. But the older the age group, the greater the use. More than a third of 17-year-old girls said they use tanning beds.
"Prom time was our busiest time," Bond recalled of her days managing the tanning salon.
In fact, some experts suspect that people don't just tan because it makes them look good -- they also do it because it makes them feel good. Some tanners become so addicted to the relaxing effects of UV rays that the tanning industry has even coined a term for them: "tanorexics."
Bond used to know them -- regular customers who came in two, three or four times a week for their tanning regimen. She worried about them sometimes. "But how do you have employees say, 'Get out of the booth. You look way too tan'?" she said.
Dermatologists say that for most people, sun damage starts with exposure to the sun in childhood. Kids and teenagers spend far more time outside playing and doing sports than adults, who more often than not are stuck indoors at a desk. On average, 80 percent of a person's lifetime exposure occurs before the age of 18.
"By the time we're mature enough to know better, it's too late," said Dr. Charles Crutchfield, a St. Paul dermatologist.
So parents who insist that their kids protect themselves from the sun may be preventing skin cancer decades later. But no one knows if skin-cancer rates will be lower decades from now.
And for the many baby boomers who spent their youth enhancing their tans with baby oil and cocoa butter, it's too late to prevent the damage to their DNA. All they can do is try not to do more -- and keep an eye out for those telltale changes on the skin that indicate cancer.
The nonmelanomas show up as red patches, usually on the face, hands or neck. Melanoma usually starts with an unusually shaped or colored mole that bleeds easily or that doesn't heal. But if you ever find a questionable spot, get it checked out, doctors say.
"See spot. See spot change. See a dermatologist," said Crutchfield. The only treatment for all kinds of skin cancers is to remove them, doctors said. Early detection is especially important for melanoma, because if it spreads to other parts of the body it's incurable 98 percent of the time, said Dr. Domingo Perez, an oncologist in St. Paul.
Although it is not nearly as common as lung or breast cancer, the incidence of melanoma is increasing at a faster rate than all other malignancies. Melanoma is now 4 to 5 percent of all malignant cancers, Perez said. And because Americans are continuing their love affair with the sun and tanning beds, "in 15 years it's going to get worse," he said.
The number of nonmelanoma cancers also is growing. Usually they are not as dangerous as melanoma, but if left unchecked they can grow into large, unsightly sores.
Bond tries to be more careful now. Whenever she spends time in the sun she puts zinc oxide on her nose because it always peels and burns. And she remembers the red, scaly patch of skin cancer that her grandfather had on his nose.
"That's the only part I get nervous about -- because of my grandpa," she said.
Josephine Marcotty 612 673 7394