Tanning facilities often given inconsistent or incorrect information about the risks associated with indoor tanning and may let kids as young as 10 or 12 tan, according to a new study from Missouri.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some guidelines on proper safety precautions for indoor tanning, those aren't enforced by states if the state government doesn't pass its own regulations, researchers explained.
Missouri is one of 17 states without any age or safety restrictions on indoor tanning - a trend that has become increasingly popular, and some say addictive, among young women.
"It's not just, ‘I'm going to look good for the prom.' It's something that's a very common practice among lots of kids, particularly Caucasian girls," said Dr. Sophie J. Balk, an attending pediatrician at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, New York.
"Teenagers in general, particularly the younger ones, may not understand the risk," Balk, who co-wrote a commentary published with the new study, told Reuters Health.
"It is a cumulative effect," said Dr. Brundha Balaraman, who led the new study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "The younger you start, the more damage you accrue."
She and her colleagues made calls to hundreds of indoor tanning facilities in the state to inquire about teen tanning. In total, they talked to operators at 243 facilities, twice each.
Just under two-thirds of operators said their facility would allow kids as young as 10 or 12 to tan, sometimes without parental consent. Forty-three percent of them claimed there were no risks tied to indoor tanning, and 80 percent said tanning could prevent future sunburns, the research team wrote Monday in Pediatrics.
Single facilities often provided inconsistent information between two different calls, Balaraman and her colleagues found.
"We kind of had the sense that this was happening," she told Reuters Health. "It was scary, because 43 percent said there was zero risk with tanning, which is just blatantly untrue."
Tanning is known to increase a person's chance of developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 76,690 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2013, and 9,480 will die from it.
The researchers said there is a need for more FDA regulation of underage tanning since getting laws passed in each individual state is slow and ineffective.
"I think a federal law would be most helpful, because it would just make the process a lot more efficient," Balaraman said.
Tanning beds are currently classified in the same group of medical devices as Band-Aids and tongue depressors, she added, which means there's not much regulation of manufacturers.
Tanning bed manufacturers are, however, required to add a label to the devices, warning against the dangers of burning, skin cancer and eye damage from UV exposure, according to an FDA spokesperson.
The spokesperson told Reuters Health in an email, "FDA is committed to providing consumers with an update as soon as possible on the agency's next steps on tanning bed regulation. We consider the use of tanning lamps an important public health issue."
The Administration will review public comments and scientific data "that will help us determine the appropriate level of regulatory oversight for tanning devices," the spokesperson said.
Balk said many countries - including Australia, the UK and Portugal - have banned indoor tanning by young people.
"Governments around the world have taken action on behalf of our young people," Balk said. "I think that our federal government should do the same."