Karen Raines used to lie outside for hours, dreaming of glowing, bronzed skin until her flesh was red and blistered.
But the burns never made the 25-year-old tan. Instead, she got call from her doctor.
Raines had skin cancer.
Now, at 48, the CSU biology professor bears a small scar on her back – a permanent reminder to the three-time skin cancer survivor that tan skin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a value she passes on to her daughter and students.
Raines has changed her relationship with the sun. She spends less time in daylight, wears sunscreen everyday and still receives annual skin checks from a dermatologist.
But not everyone gets a second chance or third chance. This year alone, 8,000 Americans will pay for skin-deep beauty – with their lives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of skin cancer among young people in the U.S. has risen by almost three percent each year since 1981, and Colorado, with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, is no exception.
With May being National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, dermatologists have targeted indoor tanning salons, pointing to their increase in popularity as the cause.
But indoor tanning isn’t going down without a fight. Several local salons are actively promoting themselves as the healthy alternative to sun tanning, and some insist no proven link exists between indoor tanning and skin cancer.
And with the recent failure of a Colorado bill that would limit tanning to those over 18 – a law passed in 19 other states – it appears the salons could be winning.
Indoor tanning has grown to become a $5 billion-a-year industry, with 30 million Americans catching the fake rays each year, according to The American Academy of Dermatology.
Home to over a dozen tanning salons, Fort Collins is no stranger to this market. CSU students have their pick to an array of tanning techniques and locations when the weather doesn’t permit a bake. The synthetically hued skin tones flooding campus attest to tanning popularity, especially in the frigid winter months.
“Since 1996 there has been a sky rocketing boom in the tanning industry,” said Tassica Singleton, a manger at A Desired Look tanning salon in Fort Collins. “People aspire to look like the people they see in a magazine, and right now, they’re more dark, and have golden skin tones. Their popularity is still on the rise.”
But this fake baking could leave students fried. Despite the “safety” advertised by several salons, the rays emitted by tanning beds can carry both UVA and UVB rays, said Jane Higgins, a physician at Hartshorn Health Center. Both of these rays are linked with an increased risk of melanoma, the deadly and most prominent type of cancer in Colorado.
Lauri Elwyn, a physician and medical director at Hartshorn, has seen this cancer first hand at Colorado State University. Over the past several years, there has been an increase in cases of melanoma. The health center sees at least one student patient with the disease each year.
“There is no definite known reason for the increase in melanoma, and both tanning from the sun and tanning at a salon will increase your risks,” said Elwyn, who has also seen an increase in indoor tanning in many patients, especially before spring break. “But I discourage tanning in the salon because it’s more concentrated, and medically, it’s completely negative.”
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, which strongly encourages any legislation limiting the use of tanning beds by minors, tanning beds can emit up to 15 times the amount of UVA rays as the sun, significantly increasing one’s chance of cancer.
Coloradans are especially at risk for the disease, even without the aide of tanning beds, due to its touted number of sunny days and the higher altitude. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported an incidence rate among men in the state as 46 percent higher than the nation, and for women, 38 percent higher.
With statistics like these, it’s a wonder why the use of tanning beds has grown so consistently along with skin cancer rates.
Linda Johnson, a manager at Ultra Tanz tanning salon, thinks that indoor tanning offers more benefits than drawbacks.
“It only takes three sessions in a high bed to get a good base tan,” she said. “You don’t have to lay out all the time and it can keep you from burning.”
Johnson said that Ultra Tanz requires that patrons be 18 or have permission by a parent to use their beds, adhering to federal regulation. She believes further legislation restricting their use to minors is unnecessary, and Singleton agrees.
“If people educate themselves, they can make good decisions on their own,” she said. “You have to do things in moderation, and hope that the girls who tan with parent’s permission have been educated by their parents.”
Higgins also believes education is the key to reversing the skin cancer growth.
“I am not sure legislation is the appropriate way to influence people’s health decisions,” she said. “Education is important, and making sure people understand the risk there might be with using tanning beds is prudent.”
Having battled with skin cancer first hand, Raines view of tanning salons is much less forgiving. She said they’re “horrible,” and that because evidence suggests that burns from childhood pay a large role in one’s risk of skin cancer, minors should not be allowed to use them, parental permission or not.
“It’s weird to think that changes in a part of your body, like your skin, could kill you,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine, but it does.”
Staff writer Margaret Canty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.