How healthy is that healthy glow from tanning beds?

  • Fri Mar 26th, 2010 11:34pm
  • News

By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer

Dr. Robin Hornung doesn’t mince words about the damage tanning beds can cause.

“A lot of operators don’t know what they’re doing,” the Everett dermatologist said. “They’re getting people cooked.”

She said she saw one patient in the burn unit at Seattle’s Haborview Medical Center who was hospitalized for a week with total body burns.

Some special tanning lamps can be up to 15 times stronger than the sun for one type of ultraviolet light, she said. “So in my mind, that’s not safe.”

So she and other physicians participated in a hearing in Maryland on Thursday, urging an advisory panel of the federal Food and Drug Administration to increase regulation of indoor tanning.

The American Academy of Dermatology is advocating an outright ban on the production and sale of indoor tanning equipment for nonmedical purposes.

While such a ban is unlikely, Hornung and other physicians are pressing for other restrictions. These include barring anyone under the age of 18 from using tanning beds.

The advisory panel urged the federal agency to agree to tighter controls, either by approving a similar ban or by requiring parental approval. The panel also recommended bolder warning labels on tanning beds.

Those recommendations came on the same week as a 10 percent tax on tanning salons was approved as part of national health care legislation.

Hornung and other physicians say action to further regulate indoor tanning is needed because of mounting evidence of increasing rates of skin cancer.

Washington state ranks fifth nationally for rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, said Shannon McDonald, executive administrator of the Washington State Dermatology Association.

The state also has some of the highest densities of tanning salons in the nation, she said. In Spokane and Tacoma, “there’s actually more tanning facilities than the mean number of Starbucks and McDonald’s,” she said, citing a medical study from last year.

An estimated 3,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year because of indoor tanning injuries, according to federal documents.

“I personally think the sun is safer,” Hornung said.

John Overstreet, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Indoor Tanning Association, was at the same FDA advisory panel hearing where Hornung spoke.

Between that hearing and the tax included in the federal health care legislation, the group feels it is under fire, he said. Although the timing is happenstance, professional dermatology groups are behind both, he said.

“The bottom line is, for a number of reasons, we’re in the cross hairs of a very, very powerful special-interest medical association,” Overstreet said.

Most of the people on the FDA’s 16-member advisory panel are physicians, Overstreet said, and at least some of those who testified were doctors, too.

“Unfortunately, they’re the ones with M.D. after their name. There’s a tendency to believe them if they say it,” he said. “Luckily, these were only recommendations coming out of that committee.”

Overstreet said his industry group strongly supports parental consent and wouldn’t mind requiring it for anyone under 18, but questioned if it was necessary.

“Some people say this is too big a decision for parents. For crying out loud, we’re talking about suntan,” Overstreet said. At the age of 18, “you can drive a car and join the military and can’t get a suntan?”

He acknowledged that current warnings on tanning machines can be hard to read, but added: “At some point, how many times do you have to warn people? I don’t think these businesses have to have a big neon sign in their lobby saying don’t do this.”

In south Everett, Dana Gandy, who co-owns Coconuts Tanning Salon with his daughter, said he doesn’t believe federal regulation is needed.

“Like anything in life, moderation is the key,” he said. “Safety is our highest priority.”

All employees at his business are required to have training as a tanning consultant so that they can help clients take precautions and avoid overexposure, he said.

A computer tracks how many minutes each customer is in a booth and how often they come.

Customers are asked to fill out a written questionnaire asking, among other things, if they are taking medications that may make them sensitive to sunlight.

The form includes a statement that overexposure to ultraviolet radiation in tanning beds, as with natural sunlight, can cause premature aging and skin cancer.

And even though parents must give written permission for their children to use a tanning bed in his salon, he doesn’t think a federal mandate for parents to do so should be required.

“I don’t believe the government has the right to supersede the parent’s responsibility,” he said. “To remove a parent’s ability to regulate whether their own child is capable to tan or not, I think is a huge intrusion.”

Gandy said he has told more than one overeager patron that their appointments are too close together, including one man who came in recently.

“I would rather make them mad than overexpose them,” he said. “Yeah, I cut him off.”

Gandy said he’s proud of the way the business is run and that it is done in a safe and responsible way.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who comes in here who doesn’t understand and know about the risks of overexposure,” he said. “People are very well educated about it.

“They still choose to do this,” Gandy said. “They feel like the risks are tolerable for the results they get.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or