Tanning Beds And Skin Cancer Risk
- Misty Ovens, 44, is a breast cancer survivor with a history of tanning salon use. She was diagnosed with skin cancer this year, and had surgery that left her “stitched up like Frankenstein” on her face. Now, she’s encouraging people to use sunscreen and get their skin checks.
- The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that over 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year, making it the most common cancer in the United States.
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, and develops when basal cells, one of three main types of cells in the top layer of the skin, grow abnormally or uncontrollably.
- Tanning beds are dangerous because they expose you to the same harmful UVA/UVB rays you get from the sun, but in the bed these rays reach you from only 6-8 inches away. Studies have shown that exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer and ocular cancer.
Misty Ovens, a 44-year-old mother of three in Richland, Washington, is a two-time cancer survivor, and her first experience with the disease came in 2011.Read More
After seeing the “pain and trauma” the breast cancer battle had on her family, Ovens became far more concerned with skin protection. She used to go to the tanning salon about once a week for the 10 years prior to her breast cancer journey, but now she’s an avid sunscreen user.
Still, the change in her ways did not prevent the shocking diagnosis that came after she noticed a tiny bump on her face this year.
“It started off the size of a pebble and then it kept getting bigger and bigger and it started having a secondary bump coming out of it down below, almost like a tail,” she explained. “When I go in for my monthly facials usually they can take care of them and they couldn’t with this one.
“It just kept getting bigger and then one day when I was cleaning my glasses my fingernail snagged it and it started bleeding and I just figured it would close up but it never did.”
Her bump “got a little more conspicuous” before her facial the next month, so she asked a dermatologist to check it out at her appointment. They recommended she get it checked out.
After waiting about six weeks for a dermatology referral, Ovens was told she likely had cancer. The end of March arrived with a biopsy that confirmed their suspicions: She had a type of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma.
“When I found out it was cancer [skin] it was kind of surreal,” she said. “I honestly thought that I was just going in to get it frozen off because I had friends who had similar experiences.”
Sadly, Ovens surgery would not be so simple. She had to have an operation that was “a lot more of a traumatic” than she envisioned.
“I felt like I was stitched up like Frankenstein,” she said. “The hole was the circumference of a golf ball but wasn’t as deep as one.
“I was really shocked when I saw the size of the hole and the stitching. I think that was the first time that I started actually processing any feelings about it. I kind of just shut it out when I went into it.”
Today, Ovens is recovering for her surgery while serving as a board member for a cancer center. She is constantly encouraging people to get their skin checks, and, so far, she’s had five different friends tell her they’ve scheduled skin checks with a dermatologist after hearing her story. She also considers herself a “missionary for sunscreen.”
“As we get older we’re all pretty good about putting sunscreen on but it’s the reapplying that I think a lot of us, I know I, failed at,” she said. “I’ve been telling my friends and family that we’re not invincible and it’s a really small amount of effort to protect yourself from something that is for the most part preventable.
“So if you’re not going to do it for yourself, just think about how it’s going to impact other people if you do have a diagnosis that requires large treatment.”
Understanding Skin Cancer
The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that over 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year, making it the most common cancer in the United States.
Skin cancers more commonly occur on parts of the body that tend to get more sun like the face, head, neck and arms, but they can develop anywhere on the body – including places like the bottoms of your feet, your genitals and inside your mouth.
Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board certified dermatologic surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue, previously spoke with SurvivorNet about how to best reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. Here are her top five ways to try to avoid the disease:
- Avoid sun during peak hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect the tops of our heads, the tops of our ears and the delicate area around the eye.
- Wear at least SPF 30 sunscreen and make sure to reapply every two hours or after excessive sweating or swimming.
- Have yearly skin checks (with a professional) because it’s difficult to evaluate areas all over the body.
- Avoid tanning beds. There are no “good” tanning beds, and they can significantly increase your risk of skin cancer.
And though the upcoming summer months may require extra skin protection, it’s important to remember that you are, in fact, at risk of developing skin cancer all year round.
“My patients ask me all the time, ‘Do I really need sunscreen every day, all year round?’ The answer is yes,” Dr. Engelman previously told SurvivorNet. “People think they only need sun protection when they’re in the bright, warm sunshine. But the reality is, we can get sun damage at any time throughout the year, even in the cold, wintry months. Think about when you go skiing. That’s a very high risk. Even though it’s cold, our skin should be protected.”
What Is Basal Cell Carcinoma?
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer and develops when basal cells, one of three main types of cells in the top layer of the skin, grow abnormally or uncontrollably.
One distinguishing factor of this type of skin cancer is that it tends to grow more slowly resulting in minimal damage and making it generally curable when caught and treated early.
The tricky thing, however, is that BCC can often be overlooked as a pimple or skin tag. They may appear as raised areas on the skin with pale, pink or red-ish colors, and they may also have abnormal blood vessels. No matter what, if you have a spot on your skin that seems abnormal or questionable, you should consult your doctor because BCC can look very different from person to person.
Generally speaking, BCC occurs when DNA damage from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or indoor tanning triggers changes in basal cells. Because it most often develops on areas of the skin that are exposed to sun, it’s crucial to protect yourself from the sun in any way that you can.
No matter how vigilant you are about decreasing your risk for skin cancer, its important to still prioritize routine checkups with your dermatologist and always be on the lookout for any skin changes in between visits.
The Dangers of Tanning Beds
Tanning salons should always be avoided to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. 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.
Alternatives to Tanning Beds
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.