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Posted on Wed, Mar 7, 2012 : 5 a.m.

Stay away from tanning booths to help stay cancer-free

By Ask Dr. K


My teenage daughter went to a tanning bed for the first time last year, before her junior prom. What troubles me is that she never stopped going after that. How bad is tanning for her health?


There's something about having a tan that makes us feel more attractive, so it's not surprising that tanning salons are popular with teens.

But as healthy as a tan may make you look, it's not healthy. In fact, tanning can be downright dangerous. That's why you should talk to your daughter and urge her to stop now.

Tanning is how the body protects itself from sun exposure. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun causes skin cells to produce more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin and helps block UVR. However, a lot of sun exposure can cause DNA damage in skin cells, which can lead to cancer.

Because the DNA damage takes many years to cause skin cancer, it rarely affects children. But parents still need to protect their kids, as UVR from the sun or from tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer in adulthood. Approximately 25 percent of a person's lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18.

In fact, tanning beds are worse for your skin than regular exposure to the sun. Tanning beds can have UVR that is 10 to 15 times more powerful than the midday sun. People who frequently go to tanning salons can end up getting up to five times the dose of UVR that people get from normal sun exposure in a year. And all that radiation is added to what they get from normal sun exposure.

Sun exposure isn't all bad. It helps our skin make vitamin D, which is crucial for bone health and for overall health.

We can also get vitamin D from some foods and from pills. Major studies are under way to determine what is a healthy blood level of vitamin D, and whether pills to boost low blood levels have health benefits.

Being outside is good for us in other ways besides increasing our vitamin D. There are more opportunities for vigorous exercise outdoors than indoors. Just cover up.

I was raised in sunny Southern California and probably spent more than half of my weekends on the beach. In those days, we didn't know there was any downside to sun exposure, except a sunburn. I probably got 50 percent of my lifetime sun exposure before I was 18. The price I've paid as an adult is multiple skin cancers. Fortunately, I caught all of them early.

So don't let your daughter go to a tanning salon regularly, and explain why. If she really wants a tanned look, suggest using artificial tanners. Spray tans and sunless tanning lotions turn the skin darker (but don't protect against UVR). But if prom night is a few days away, and she's still not happy with what she sees in the mirror, a single visit to the tanning salon is not the end of the world.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information:

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