Published May 6, 2022
Any amount of trips to the tanning salon increases your risk for skin cancer. And now one young melanoma survivor is here to share this fact with all who will listen.
Shannon Masterton, 29, is a mother of two from Londonderry, Ireland. She used tanning beds twice a week before she went on trips to get a nice glow.
“I didn’t think anything of my sunbed use,” she said. “I thought because I only went on twice a week and didn’t use them all year round it would be fine.”
But eventually, this unhealthy habit would catch up with her. She eventually developed a spot on her skin that looked like a freckle and began to feel itchy while she wan on a trip that she had tanned for. A year later, she returned to the tanning beds before another trip and noticed the same feeling on her leg which developed into a burning sensation and eventually caused that area of her leg to go numb. A friend realized that Masterson had still not had her leg looked at by a professional in December 2019 and urged her to see a doctor.
“I’m also grateful to my friend, Aine, and everything she did for me,” she said. “Life could have been very different if I didn’t have an earth angel as a friend.”
The doctor from her first visit took photos of the spot on her leg and presented them to a dermatologist who asked to she Masterson promptly.
“At the appointment I had three moles removed and biopsied and the following week I got called in urgently to receive my results,” she said. “I knew something must have been seriously wrong and my heart sank.”
Masterson was finally diagnosed with melanoma in January 2020. From there, she underwent surgery to remove the cancer and surrounding tissue in her leg as well as some of her nerves. A part of her leg is completely numb as a result.
“I never imagined in a million years that this would be happening to me,” she said. “I’m so lucky that I caught it early enough and went to the doctors when my friend forced me to.”
Today, she is cancer free but still has regular check ups. Masterson also says she is “so much more cautious” than she once was when it comes to skin protection and knows tanning is simply not worth it.
“I am always covered up and so are my kids,” she said. “It’s just not worth the risk.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the same cells that give your skin, hair and eyes their color. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 99,780 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States in 2022. And while the ACS says the risk of melanoma increases as people age with the average age of diagnosis being 65, the disease is not uncommon among those younger than 30. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults (especially young women).
The disease can develop from an existing mole or appear as a dark or pink growth on the skin even in places on the body that never see the sun. Ninety percent of melanomas are caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun, so it’s important to protect your skin with things like sunscreen and clothing.
It’s also known to be the deadliest form of skin cancer.
“Melanomas are the deadliest type of skin cancer because they have a tendency to spread to other parts of the body,” explains Dr. Anna Pavlick, a medical oncologist with Weill Cornell Medicine who specializes in treating skin cancer.
Dr. Cecilia Larocca of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute gives SurvivorNet an overview of things to look out for with moles using the ABCDE self-screening method:
Spots on our skin are often harmless, but it’s still important to keep an eye on them and reach out to your doctor if you see any changes or find a growth anywhere on your skin that looks suspicious.
And if you’re considering visiting a tanning bed during these cold winter months, we’d highly suggest you think again. Just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of melanoma by 20 percent, squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent and basal cell carcinoma by 29 percent, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
When you hop into a tanning bed, you are exposing yourself to the very same dangerous rays you expose yourself to outside – but they’re only 6-8 inches away. And in a study recently published in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, researchers suggest that banning tanning beds among minors would prevent thousands of cases of melanoma in adolescents, along with millions of dollars in healthcare costs.
So, even if the temptation of achieving a nice “glow” seems irresistible, you should note that health experts warn against using tanning beds.
“Studies have shown that exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer and ocular cancer,” says Dr. Lynn A. Cornelius, chief of the division of dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It also induces changes that lead to premature aging of the skin. There is no ‘safe’ tanning bed.”
Dr. Pavlick echoed Dr. Cornelius’ statements by explaining that tanning beds increase your chances of melanoma “exponentially.”
“We know there is a direct correlation with [melanoma] patients who go to indoor tanning salons,” Dr. Pavlick tells SurvivorNet, who notes that the exposure “is about 6 inches from your body.”
The sun is millions of miles away when you’re on a beach, “so you have to think of the intensity that you’re exposing your skin to when you go to a tanning salon,” she says.
If achieving the perfect tan is very important to you, there are other options to try instead of the UV-blasting tanning beds or prolonged sun exposure. Temporary options like spray tans and self-tanning lotions are thought to be far better alternatives.
“Spray tans and sunless tanning lotions are safe,” Dr. Cornelius says. “One should take precautions not to inhale the product when getting a spray tan. Skin allergic reactions are rare.”
Spray tans are a much safer alternative to tanning beds, but Dr. Craig Elmets, professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, says that not much is known about the side effects of spray tans.
“They even have a very mild sunscreen effect,” he says, adding that applying sunblock is still recommended when going outdoors. “Not a lot is known about the side effects, but there is very limited absorption and they have been available for decades without any reports of serious side effects, which is reassuring.”
Self-tanning pills are another option for people seeking a golden glow, but tanning pills are not FDA-approved or endorsed by dermatologists. Dr. Elmets notes that they have also been associated with allergic reactions and systemic side effects.