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MOBILE, Alabama -- About 63 percent of college students surveyed at the University of South Alabama say they use multiple methods to tan their skin, raising concerns among local cancer experts about the risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.
The survey, conducted by faculty at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute in 2016, explored tanning behaviors and beliefs as well as skin types, gender and family histories of melanoma. The findings are published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
“We wanted to see how national tanning behaviors compared with that of our local students, especially on the Gulf Coast,” said Casey L. Daniel, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncologic sciences at MCI, and one of the authors. “No one is looking at combination tanning, and they should.”
Of the 2,587 students who responded to the survey, 62.7 percent said they participated in more than one tanning method, such as outdoor, indoor (tanning bed) and spray tanning. More than half said they combined tanning bed use with direct sun exposure. Females were three times more likely to be combination tanners, the survey showed.
Daniel said the cancer risk from combination tanning has not been fully explored. “Our message is that there is definitely a risk involved with tanning,” she said. “Any kind of sun exposure should be done responsibly. Tanning beds should be avoided altogether.”
Melanoma is the most aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer, accounting for 1,320 newly diagnosed cases and 160 deaths in Alabama this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Frequent exposure to UV rays for those under age 35 increases the risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the survey, more than 93 percent said they had been informed of the cancer risk associated with tanning-bed use.
“While individuals who indoor tanned acknowledged the inherent risks of tanning, they were intending to continue these practices,” said co-author Natalie R. Gassman, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncologic sciences at MCI.
Spray tanning has been promoted as a safe alternative to indoor and outdoor tanning, but only 21 percent of the surveyed students said they had tried it.
Spray tanning hasn’t been thoroughly studied, Gassman noted. She said that “aerosolized application of sunless tanning agents may introduce new risks to users, and further work is needed to understand these exposures.”
The authors said they plan to expand their research to examine tanning practices by high school students. “Tanning is ingrained in our culture,” she said. “As the next generation grows up, we need to be able to educate youth and adults to make responsible health decisions and prevent cancer whenever possible.”
The cancer risk associated with indoor tanning has prompted 16 states and the District of Columbia to ban the use of tanning beds by minors. Alabama requires parental permission for teens ages 15-17 and bans it for those under 15.
Among the survey’s other findings:
● Of the combination tanners, 82 percent were female.
● College juniors represented the largest group of single-method tanners (28 percent), while college seniors accounted for the largest group of combination tanners (35 percent).
● Among combination tanners, 34 percent agreed with the statement that tanning beds are “fine if not too frequent.”
● Among single-method tanners, 28 percent disagreed with the statement.
● Of the combination tanners, 8.6 percent said they had a family history of melanoma.
About USA Mitchell Cancer Institute: MCI is the only academic cancer research and treatment facility located on the upper Gulf Coast corridor, with offices in Mobile, Fairhope and Monroeville.
© 2017 USA Health System