Special Report: Tan at Your Own Risk

Posted at: 02/10/2014 2:21 PM
Updated at: 02/10/2014 8:39 PM
By: Brittany Falkers

This season's frigid cold has many young women hitting the tanning bed to beat those winter blues.

"I get that warm feeling and it's so cozy," frequent indoor tanner Brooke Peysar said.

Peysar says she started to tan indoors around age 14.  Now, for the 21-year-old college junior it's a weekly routine.

"I feel so good when I'm tan," she said.  "I always feel like I look better.  I feel more confidant and I can wear clothes that look good with tan skin, instead of having to base it on how white I am."

But that sun-kissed glow may come at a price.  The second most common cancer for women ages 15 to 29 is melanoma and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) wants young tanners to know - they're putting themselves in danger.

"The two main risk factors for melanoma are your skin type and how much ultraviolet light you get," Dr. Jeff Evanson said.

Evanson is a dermatologist with St. Luke's in Duluth.  He treats patients for this deadly form of skin cancer, most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds.

"The two main types of light from the sun are UVA and UVB and it's the same in a tanning booth," Evanson said. 

While tanning under the sun also creates a risk, indoor tanning delivers 10 to 15 times more ultraviolet radiation than the sun, increasing the user's risk by almost 60 percent. 

It's a truth Gracelynn Hansen wishes she had known before first stepping into a tanning booth more than 25 years ago.

"I would say you're crazy, it's not worth it," Hansen said. 

Hansen is a former tanning salon owner.  She says laying in that tanning bed was a relaxing way to unwind after a hard day of work, but says it quickly became an addiction.  She would often tan about five days a week. 

"I could never get tan enough and everybody would say to me, you are so tan," Hansen said.  "I would think, oh no I'm not."

Hansen says it was easy to dismiss the dangers of indoor tanning for many years, but the risks became a reality a few years ago.  She had a tumor removed from her nose.  "That is the worst spot.  On your face," she said.

Hansen feels lucky the cancer was caught early and she avoided more treatments, such as chemotherapy, but says her face will never be the same.  "I walked around for about a year, just feeling bad. Because I still can't cover it up," Hansen said. 

Hansen says she has been in and out of the dermatologist's office ever since.  She has had two more cancerous spots removed, but it wasn't until recently that she stopped tanning.  

"I think it takes something really strong like this," she said.  "I should have stopped after the first time, but I didn't."

Wishing she knew what she knows now, Hansen has a plea for other young tanners who feel they will never be tan enough.  "So girls, please don't do it," Hansen said. 

Like most girls around her age, Peysar has heard this advice before, but that won't stop her from heading back to bronze under those bulbs.  "I take great care of my skin. I am always careful and tanning is the one thing that I do to, hurt myself kind of," she said.

But Peysar is not alone.  A recent MDH survey found that among white high school juniors, one in three go to tanning booths.  In fact, more than half have gone ten times or more.

Convincing young women to stop or slow down their tanning regiment is no easy feat.  Dr. Evanson says there are many factors that can play into this, but two major aspects really stick out.

"Ya know, that's an uphill battle that I find," Evanson said.  "We're kind of fighting against two different forces.  One is vanity and the other is invincibility."

Invincibility is a feeling Hansen knows all too well.  She says ignored the warnings for years.  "When I look back and think of what I did, it's just ridiculous.  Everybody told me, don't do it. I was fanatical," Hansen said. 

While many people hop in a tanning bed because they like the way it makes them look, many people do it because of the way it makes them feel.  Dawn Johnson owns Aj's Tanning Salons in Duluth and Superior.  She says many people from 19 to 90 head to the salon to get light therapy.

"You can't just take a pill for everything.  We have the sun, that God gave us, and we're just doing it in a controlled environment," Anderson said.

Johnson says there are many positive aspects of tanning.  Not only does it help to elevate your mood, but she says clients with arthritis and other skin conditions have found a lot of relief through tanning.

"Getting that light therapy just makes a huge difference on your mood, on your work performance, how you feel about yourself," Anderson said.

The goal and Aj's Tanning is to make sure people are tanning in moderation.  Anserson says that they will set specific tan limits for clients so that they do not burn under the bulbs.

Dr. Evanson knows that many people will continue to tan, despite knowing the added risks.  So tanners, indoor and out, should know their personal risk factors before hand.  He says, that way, you can weigh the risks versus the benefits.
"I try to say everything in moderation and I really try to educate patent on what their personal risks are," Evanson said.  "Your skin type, family genetics, the amount of sun you're getting on an average basis."

Skipping the tanning bed might sound like a pasty white existence for some avid tanners, but there are other options.  AJ's and others offer spray tanning.  There are booth spray options, such as the Mystic Tan and even air brush tanning. However, Peysar says, for now, she'll stick with the bulbs.

"If you feel better about yourself I think it's worth the little bit of risk," Peysar said.

With many teen and young adults disregarding the dangers of indoor tanning, Hansen says it's time for them to face the facts.  Just last week Hansen had four more growths removed for a biopsy and she's still waiting for the results.

"I don't know what I'm facing when I come back and find out.  I really don't know," she said. 

Possibly confronting skin cancer for the fourth time - she hopes sharing her story will make a difference.  She hopes young women can avoid the pain she thought could never happen to her.  "I hope that the girls will listen, everybody, I didn't and I'm going to suffer for it," Hansen said.

The Minnesota Department of Health is now encouraging high school students to tell the truth about tanning by creating short videos to share information on the dangers of tanning.  The contest is called the UVideo Challenge.  The Minnesota Dermatological Society is sponsoring cash prizes for the best 30-second videos.  The clips will be selected by a panel of experts and online voting by peers.  You can submit your videos online until April 11, 2014.  Voting starts in April.

For more information on the UVideo Challenge, including prizes, guidelines and key dates, visit the Website here.