On Sunday, California signed into legislation the nation's toughest law on teens and tanning beds. The law prohibits anyone younger than 18 from using a tanning bed beginning Jan. 1. I sat down this week to discuss the new legislation with Dennis Hughes, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in sarcomas and skin cancers at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital. In 2009, Texas passed a law prohibiting tanning bed use in children younger than 16.
1) What are your thoughts on the new California bill prohibiting tanning bed use in children younger than 18?
First and foremost, no child younger than 18 needs to be in a tanning bed. There's no reason, medical or societal, for kids to be in a tanning bed. I think this is another good step toward protecting our kids. We already have laws in place protecting them from smoking and drinking as teens, and this runs along those same lines.
2) What are the risks of using a tanning bed while a teen?
People get the bulk of their sun exposure and sunburns by the time they're 18. Premature aging, wrinkling and skin cancer risk all result from this exposure. Prohibiting tanning bed use will help cut down their ultraviolet (UV) exposure at an early age, which in turn will help reduce the risk of premature aging and cancer as adults.
3) Are there benefits to using a tanning bed that this law would be eliminating? For instance, some people say that tanning beds are beneficial for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
4) What about our need for vitamin D intake?
My impression is that the exposure of UV light you'd get from a tanning bed exceeds what you ideally need to get good levels of vitamin D. After a while, more UV actually breaks down the vitamin D and we have less than we started with. Most of what we do in our daily activity outside, along with nutrition, is enough for what we need. There are better ways of getting vitamin D than long periods of exposure to UV light. Drink milk instead if you're worried about vitamin D.
5) What are some good alternatives for using tanning beds?
Spray tan and tanning lotions are better solutions for teens wanting that bronze look.
6) Why should laws restrict tanning bed use in teens versus other age groups?
As a country, we have allowed adults to make their own decisions regarding risky behaviors (smoking, drinking, etc.). In general, children and teens have a tendency to make poor decisions for short-term gain, often disregarding the long-term risks. Because of this perception, our nation historically has enacted laws to protect youth from making decisions that will negatively impact their future.
7) The law exempts teens who have a prescription from their doctor for using tanning beds? When and why would a doctor prescribe tanning?
There is a treatment that involves phototherapy to treat severe psoriasis that's primarily conducted in a physician setting. I could see where people might think using a tanning bed would be similar to getting phototherapy. This isn't ideal because tanning beds primarily emit UVA light, whereas UVB light is attributed to being more beneficial for psoriasis treatment. In general, treatment using UV exposure should be under the guidance of a physician.
8) What else can be done to protect children, teens and young adults from dangerous ultraviolet exposure?
Information, education and good examples -- that's what we need. Children need to be educated early on about the dangers of UV exposure. We need to work on doing away with the popular image of a tan look. Parents need to set the examples themselves and teach their kids early on to use sunscreen. As a doctor who sees skin cancers even in young children, we also need to learn how to better identify and seek medical attention for suspicious spots.
The loophole surrounding a doctor's prescription will need to be closely watched. I would also like to see amendments in the future that will include revenue to increase education about the adverse effects of UV exposure.