DERMATOLOGISTS are so concerned about cancer and other health risks of salon tanning that many are now comparing it to smoking and are calling for warning labels similar to those on cigarette packs.
In addition to skin cancer, doctors are concerned about the link between overexposure to ultraviolet light--the kind used in salons--and cataracts, retina damage, changes in the immune system, allergic reactions and premature aging of the skin, according to Dr. Leonard C. Harber, chairman of the Task Force on Photobiology for the American Academy of Dermatology. He urges that "people be warned about the potential risks when they enter parlors." The Skin Cancer Foundation in New York takes a stronger position, advising the public to "avoid tanning parlors."
According to Food and Drug Administration regulations, tanning devices have carried warning labels for both commercial and home use since 1980. However, the FDA's authority over salons is limited. "The problems are not with the equipment, but with the way the machines are promoted and used within the salons," explains Robert Handren of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
He says warning labels on machines are wordy, so users often "won't go to the trouble of reading them." He adds that some salon operators remove the labels to avoid frightening clients. "That's why the FDA and doctors are urging state and local governments to require the salons to carry conspicuous warnings," he says. A bill proposing such signs and stricter controls on tanning businesses goes before the California State Senate this month.
According to Handren, some salons have falsely advertised the health benefits of indoor tanning, a practice that he terms illegal because "there are none." One owner of a salon chain insists that getting a "base tan" indoors before sunbathing outdoors will help prevent burns. But, says Dr. John Epstein of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine: "Even with a tan, damage continues to occur with subsequent sun exposure." Plus, adds Harber, UVA light (the kind most prevalent in tanning devices) has been shown to exacerbate skin damage caused by exposure to UVB (the burning rays in natural sunlight). Handren also points out that since UVA rays don't burn, salon users don't know when they are being overexposed.
Meanwhile, attempts are being made within the billion-dollar-a-year indoor-tanning industry to educate salon owners, operators and the public. Members of the Tanning & Toning Institute of America, which includes about 1,000 of the more than 20,000 salons in the U.S., would like to self-regulate their industry through an accreditation program. Currently, no industry standards exist. President Frank E. Baumann maintains that there are ethical salon operators, but others "are just throwing people on the beds and taking their money. That gives the whole industry a bad name."
Warning signs may not deter die-hards, but, Handren says: "I can't think of a more effective way to negate the false advertising. At least people will be informed and can make their own decision."
Photographed by David Roth; hair and makeup by Margaret Kimura/Cloutier; model: Krista Hatton/Elite