The younger someone gets a first suntan or burn, the greater the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

So we slather sunscreen on our toddlers to limit their exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Yet, too often, our teens are soaking up the hazardous UVR from tanning beds.
UVR — whether from the sun or tanning lamps —damages the skin’s DNA, which can cause genetic mutations that might lead to skin cancer. The deadliest form, melanoma, is the second most common cancer among Canadians age 15 to 34. And the numbers are going up.

“You can’t blame only tanning beds for rising rates of skin cancer,” says Loraine Marrett, an epidemiologist and senior scientist at Cancer Care Ontario. “But they add to the risk.” So much of a person’s skin is exposed on a tanning bed — and machines emit five times the UVR of the midday sun.

A survey by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) found that an alarming 27 per cent of females and eight per cent of males age 16 to 24 used tanning equipment in 2006. Using tanning beds before age 35 can increase a person’s risk of melanoma by an incredible 75 per cent, according to a review of studies on UVR exposure from artificial sources published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2007. If we apply this percentage to numbers from a 2007 CCS survey that showed 50,000 Ontario youth under 18 had used tanning equipment, it means that up to 37,500 teens are in danger of developing skin cancer later in life. And that’s just one province.

“The issue here is safety,” says Dr. David McLean, head of prevention programs at the BC Cancer Agency, a professor of dermatology at the University of British Columbia and a strong advocate for a ban on tanning beds for teens. “At age 18, or 19 in some jurisdictions, one is legally assumed to make rational decisions as an adult. Until then, society protects young people from making the wrong choices: We don’t let them smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol legally. Why do we permit them to use tanning salons, a known cancer risk?”

Despite the dangers, the number of tanning salons has risen by five per cent each year for the past five years, according to Steve Gilroy, executive director of the Kelowna, B.C.-based Joint Canadian Tanning Association (JCTA).

Fabutan, a Calgary-based operator of 150 tanning bed franchises across Canada, put an educational brochure and consent program in place about two and a half years ago.

“Anecdotally, we haven’t seen a drop in teen tanning, so I would say it’s probably a comfort for parents to be involved in the decision-making process,” says president Doug McNabb.

Health Canada has voluntary “Guidelines for Tanning Salon Owners, Operators and Users,” which — among other recommendations — suggest that operators not allow youth under the age of 16 to tan. But a 2007 survey by the Ontario division of the CCS found that 60 per cent of tanning facilities did not ask the age of young tanners.

McLean argues that parental consent forms and voluntary guidelines are not working, so we need legislated rules.

Indeed, in 2003 the World Health Organization called for countries to impose a ban on youth under 18 using artificial tanning beds. Scotland, France and a handful of Australian and American states have put bans in place.

Yet the only Canadian jurisdiction with similar restrictions is New Brunswick; in 1992, it banned those under 18 from using tanning beds.

Given the clear-cut evidence of risk and the progressive stance against artificial tanning taken by other countries, why aren’t all Canadian provinces working on bans for those under 18? And without such a ban, what are concerned parents to do?

One thing they can do is set a good example by avoiding tanning salons and discouraging teens from valuing a sun-bronzed look. If that doesn’t work, McLean recommends self-tanning lotions or sprays.