Congressional Report Exposes Tanning Industry’s Misleading Messaging to Teens

February 1, 2012

A new report released by leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce reveals that tanning salons are routinely not providing accurate information about skin cancer and other risks to teens seeking their services. The alarming results show that the vast majority of tanning salons contacted by Committee investigators provided false information about the serious risks of indoor tanning and made erroneous claims about the health benefits that indoor tanning provides.

Committee investigators representing themselves as fair-skinned teenage girls contacted 300 tanning salons nationwide, including at least three in each state and the District of Columbia.  The investigators asked each salon a series of questions about its policies and the risks and benefits of tanning.  Committee investigators also reviewed the print and online advertising of tanning salons.

Specifically, Committee investigators found:

  • Nearly all salons denied the known risks of indoor tanning.  When asked whether tanning posed any health risks for fair-skinned teenage girls, 90% of the salons stated that indoor tanning did not pose a health risk.  When asked about the specific risk of skin cancer, over half (51%) of the salons denied that indoor tanning would increase a fair-skinned teenager’s risk of developing skin cancer.  Salons described the suggestion of a link between indoor tanning and skin cancer as “a big myth,” “rumor,” and “hype.”
  • Four out of five salons falsely claimed that indoor tanning is beneficial to a young person’s health.  Four out of five (78%) of the tanning salons claimed that indoor tanning would be beneficial to the health of a fair-skinned teenage girl.  Several salons even said that tanning would prevent cancer.  Other health benefits claimed by tanning salons included Vitamin D production, treatment of depression and low self-esteem, prevention of and treatment for arthritis, weight loss, prevention of osteoporosis, reduction of cellulite, “boost[ing] the immune system,” sleeping better, treating lupus, and improving symptoms of fibromyalgia. 
  • Salons used many approaches to minimize the health risks of indoor tanning.  During their calls, Committee investigators representing themselves as fair-skinned teenage girls were told that young people are not at risk for developing skin cancer; that rising rates of skin cancer are linked to increased use of sunscreen; that government regulators had certified the safety of indoor tanning; and that “it’s got to be safe, or else they wouldn’t let us do it.”  Salons also frequently referred the investigators to industry websites that downplay indoor tanning’s health risks and tout the practice’s alleged health benefits.
  • Tanning salons fail to follow FDA recommendations on tanning frequency.  The Food and Drug Administration recommends that indoor tanning be limited to no more than three visits in the first week.  Despite this recommendation, three quarters of tanning salons reported that they would permit first-time customers to tan daily; several salon employees volunteered that their salons did not even require 24-hour intervals between tanning sessions.
  • Tanning salons target teenage girls in their advertisements.  The print and online advertising for tanning salons frequently target teenage and college-aged girls with student discounts and “prom,” “homecoming,” and “back-to-school” specials.  These youth-oriented specials often feature “unlimited” tanning packages, allowing frequent — even daily — tanning, despite research showing that frequent indoor tanning significantly increases the likelihood that a woman will develop melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, before she reaches 30 years of age.

The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Position

The Skin Cancer Foundation is in full support of the efforts of Representatives Waxman and DeGette to expose the erroneous messaging disseminated by the tanning industry. The dangers of indoor-tanning machines are well documented – ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a proven human carcinogen. In fact, new research has shown that those who make just four visits to a tanning booth per year can increase their risk for melanoma by 11 percent, and their risk for the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, by 15 percent. By touting the false benefits of tanning, the owners and workers of tanning salons are putting the lives of people (in particularly, young women) in jeopardy.

The tanning salon industry downplays the health risks of indoor tanning, telling teenage girls that “it’s got to be safe, or else they wouldn’t let us do it.” In fact, the FDA classifies tanning beds as Class 1 medical devices, which suggests that they are safe. The Foundation strongly believes that the FDA should reclassify tanning beds to Class II (with restrictions) or possibly even Class III medical devices.

What Can You Do to Help?

Indoor tanning devices should receive the maximum amount of regulation, which more closely matches the health risks of these harmful devices. Help us save lives by sending a letter to the FDA.

This is a breaking story. More updates will follow on congressional recommendations based on this report.