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Trendy tanning beds under the spotlight

People have come a long way from the days when they would lather themselves with lead and arsenic in an effort to whiten their skin.

People have come a long way from the days when they would lather themselves with lead and arsenic in an effort to whiten their skin.

To a modern sensibility that seems ridiculous - especially because pale skin is about as fashionable as a celluloid collar.

Tan is the trendy look today. And the tradition of sacrificing one’s health for fashion isn’t just alive and well, it’s big business.

Every year Canadians spend millions of dollars on indoor tanning, blasting themselves with doses of carcinogenic UV radiation.

But one jurisdiction, B.C., is looking to make that more difficult, at least for those under the age of 18.

In March, the province announced it’s going to pass a law to prevent anyone under 18 from using tanning beds.

“I’m very happy to hear that,” said Denise Wexler, president of the Canadian Dermatology Association. “I think it’s a good step forward.

“There are other countries that are way ahead of us in terms of putting a ban on, so hopefully Canada’s going to fall in line and do it across the whole country.”

Right now the only other jurisdiction in Canada to ban tanning for those 18 and under is Nova Scotia. Several other provinces are considering restrictions.

The big risk is cancer.

UV radiation, which is the spectrum of light that browns skin, is a known carcinogen.

“Smoking and indoor tanning are very similar in terms of risk,” said Wexler. “I think the only form of safe tanning is no tanning.”

It’s particularly dangerous for young people.

“Sun tanning before the age of 35, especially in sun-tanning parlours, increases the risk of melanoma,” she said.

That’s because some tanning beds and booths can emit UV radiation at levels up to five times stronger than the noonday sun.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, using indoor tanning equipment before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 per cent.

And melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

“If you don’t catch it early, it’s deadly,” said Wexler. “It can spread to other parts of the body like the lymph nodes, brains and lungs.”

Skin cancer rates in Canada have been on the rise for years and melanoma is no exception.

“In Canada the lifetime risk of developing melanoma for men is now one in 74 and for woman is one in 90,” said Wexler.

But not everyone thinks that an outright ban on youth tanning is such a good idea.

“We believe that a ban goes too far,” said Steven Gilroy, the executive director for the Joint Canadian Tanning Association. “Parents should have that right to make these decisions as they do for going to the beach or going on a sunny vacation.

“If they’re allowed to do that, why aren’t they allowed to go into a controlled environment and approve that?”

While he disapproves of the move to ban youth from using tanning beds, he is in favour of more regulation of the tanning industry.

“We just want to be part of the solution and we need professional standards to bring this industry up to a professional level so the average person, no matter what age, can come in and make sure that they have a trained operator controlling the equipment.

“That’s what reduces risk (for all ages),” he said.

“I’ve spent more than half my life in this industry and followed the research and ... when you open up the research you see that this is about intermittent exposure and sunburning somebody.”

The Yukon has no territorial legislation governing the use of tanning beds although the City of Whitehorse has a bylaw that regulates them.

Under the bylaw, operators must post a sign warning customers about the risks of UV radiation near the machine, and children under 12 are prohibited from tanning without parental consent.

However, one of the few places in Whitehorse that operates a tanning booth is a little more strict.

“No one under 16 is allowed in,” said Rick Karp, of Hair Sensations.

“(For those under 18 ) we ask them if they’ve discussed it with their parents, and you know you sort of watch and if they’re defensive and then we’ll make a phone call.”

In a city like Whitehorse, with long winters and short days, artificial tanning is popular, he said.

“We have a standing list well in excess of 300,” said Karp.

They only allow people into the booth once a day, and then, only for a maximum of 10 minutes a session.

“Moderation is always the key,” he said. “When somebody buys minutes or a particular package, we keep a record of how often they’re going in and we have discussions with them periodically to see how things are going, but we never had any problems.”

A lot of the people who use the tanning booth are trying to get a “base coat” before they go away on vacation, said Karp.

However, while pre-tanning does provide a bit of protection from the sun, it’s minimal, said Wexler.

And it’s not something she recommends.

“It’s like putting on a sunscreen that has a very, very low sun protection factor, maybe two or four,” she said.

Not all people that use tanning booths do it to satisfy their vanity, many use them for therapeutic properties. About 20 per cent, according to Gilroy’s tanning association.

Although UV radiation is carcinogenic, it’s also used to treat a number of skin ailments like psoriasis, eczema, and ironically, even some types of skin cancer, like mycosis fungoides.

B.C.‘s ban will include a medical exemption, but Wexler said that kind of treatment isn’t normally done in a tanning salon.

“There are certain diseases that respond to ultraviolet light but usually those treatments are done in either hospital settings or in dermatologists’ offices and often they’re select wavelengths that are delivered for treatment.”

UV radiation is also essential for vitamin D production in a human body, but Wexler said it doesn’t take that much exposure.

“We get enough just being outside during the warm months because you really only have to be outside five to 10 minutes to get some exposure on the back of your hands,” she said. “And during the winter you can take vitamin supplements.

Contact Josh Kerr at