More Americans are seeing the light when it comes to shunning fake rays to bronze their skin as their rate of tanning-bed use has waned, a federal study reported Wednesday.
The rate of indoor tanning — a habit linked to skin cancers — dipped slightly from 5.5 percent to 4.2 percent among American adults between 2010 and 2013, according to a paper co-authored by a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most promising trend lines emerged in several demographic groups whose indoor-tanning tendencies tumbled during the study years:
But nearly 8 million U.S. women and 2 million American men continue to regularly visit tanning salons across the country to soak up UV radiation in the pursuit of darker skin, said study co-author Dr. Gery P. Guy, a CDC health economist.
And indoor-tanning rates were 177 percent higher in 2013 compared to 2010 among men aged 40 to 49, and 71 percent higher in men age 50 and older, researchers noted.
“There are roughly 800,000 men who fall into this category of age of 40 and older who are indoor tanning each year. That’s not a small number we’re talking about,” Guy said. “It’s important for them to realize the tan is temporary but the risk for skin cancer is permanent. The more they tan, the more this risk goes up.
“So, there’s some good news and also there’s some bad news that came with this study,” Guy added. He and his colleagues analyzed data for nearly 60,000 people from the 2010 and 2013 National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults.
The potential health fallout from skin scorched by solar beams or artificial UV rays is anything but sunny.
The incidence of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has increased dramatically in the last four decades. Researchers have blamed tanning beds as one likely cause.
According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma will account for more than 73,000 cases of skin cancer this year. And while melanoma is typically curable when found in early stages, it’s far more apt to grow and spread to other parts of the body than other skin cancers. Consequently, melanoma accounts for nearly 10,000 of the more than 13,000 skin cancer deaths that claim Americans annually.
People exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning have a 59 percent higher risk of developing melanoma compared to non-tanners, reports the American Academy of Dermatology. That risk increases with each use.
At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, scientists and doctors are tapping the immune system’s power to destroy cancer cells. That technique, called immunotherapy, offers potential as a melanoma treatment. In one Fred Hutch study, researchers showed that a form of immunotherapy could eradicate melanoma from certain patients.
But prevention is still the key to stopping that aggressive cancer, said Dr. Emily White, a Fred Hutch epidemiologist and member of the Public Health Sciences Division.
“Hopefully the publicity linking indoor tanning to, in particular, melanoma has scared people away from using indoor tanning beds,” White said. “Let’s not forget, [though], that outdoor sun exposure is the cause of most skin cancers.
“People need to be reminded that if they’re in the sun, wear protective clothing or use sunscreen -- and it’s particularly important for children from the time they’re born.”
Is the small decrease in tanning-bed frequency a byproduct of social peer pressure – of people publicly making fun of chronic tanners?
“Absolutely, cultural norms help change behavior,” White said. “I have no doubt when cultural norms changed [around smoking] and it was frowned upon, that influenced the decline in smoking. So that certainly could be contributing.
“Education alone has not proven to affect behavior change.”
But study co-author Guy does point to several benchmark moments – at least one of them educationally based – as possible factors in the tanning-frequency decline.
The vital bit of public teaching, Guy said, came in 2009 when the World Health Organization classified indoor tanning devices as carcinogenic.
In 2010, the federal government implemented a 10 percent excise tax on indoor tanning via the Affordable Care Act. Some have dubbed it the “tanning tax.” Guy asserts that if visiting tanning salons becomes price sensitive – like a cigarette tax for smokers – he and other researchers would expect to see a reduction in use.
Meanwhile, at least nine states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of tanning beds for minors under age 18.
“That’s not the population we’re studying here,” Guy said. “But factors like that could influence public perception regarding the safety of indoor tanning.”
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Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."