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Skip the tan, save your skin

By 18, you may have had 80 percent of your sun exposure

Skip the tan, save your skin

By Christy Oglesby

(CNN) -- It's a cancerous combination -- feeling invincible and being susceptible. That's what does young people in when it comes to sun exposure.

The tan they think looks healthy is evidence of harm. That browning is the skin's reaction to too much radiation, a kind of translucent scab on a body-size sore. But nothing experts say seems to keep millions from doing their impressions of lizards on rocks.

Some have heard the message but have turned to tanning beds, thinking they were safer. Now states are passing legislation to make sure teens and older people know that baking beneath tanning lights is just as dangerous as the sun's rays. Texas and Tennessee recently created laws to inform young people of tanning bed risks and bar them from the beds without parental consent.

"The message is, 'A safe tanning bed is like saying there is a safe cigarette. It doesn't exist,'" says Shelley Sekula-Rodriguez, an assistant dermatology professor at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. " ...If a person wants to add color, they should use sunless tanners in a bottle. They are very safe."

Early start

On average, a person receives about 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure by the time he or she is 18, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (ADA). During T-ball tournaments, family beach excursions, theme park forays and physical education classes, children are racking up hours under the sun.

Learn more about skin cancer  and how to prevent it
For educators, parents: Discussion guide on the dangers of tanning 

And previous studies, the ADA says, indicate that sun exposure is responsible for at least two-thirds of melanomas. Intermittent sun exposure during recreational activities also is linked closely to melanoma, the most serious skin cancer.

The most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma are both results of chronic exposure to sunlight.

"We're not completely sure why young people are particularly at risk," Sekula-Rodriguez says. "It could be that their immune system isn't mature. They also have young cells, and that means they're really growing faster. If a cell is rapidly growing, it's replicating DNA and the faster you produce DNA, it's more likely an error will occur. Cancer is more likely in rapidly replicating cells."

Tennessee's legislators strengthened the state's tanning bed laws to require teens between 14 and 18 to bring a parent with them to sign a form acknowledging the risks of tanning or a notarized statement indicating that acknowledgment.

State senator Rosalind Kurita sponsored the bill, which also includes a requirement to post conspicuously who shouldn't use tanning facilities. "It lists about 10 things -- 'if you're red-headed, if you're taking certain antibiotics or if you use birth control pills -- don't do this,'" Kurita says.

Texas' legislation is similar and prohibits the use of indoor tanning salons by anyone under 13, except under a doctor's supervision.

Sunscreen offers some protection from the sun and the ultraviolet light of tanning beds, but many people use the lotions to prevent sunburn while tanning. And that's improper usage, Sekula-Rodriguez says.

The best protection against overexposure to sun and the cancers it can cause, specialists say, includes sunscreen, avoiding sunshine during peak hours, protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. And most important, skip the intentional baking.

"If you weren't born with a tan," says Kurita, "don't get one."


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