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Kids and the tanning bed trap: Time to talk

Focused on Health - May 2014

by Laura Nathan-Garner and Brittany Cordeiro

You’ve had the sex talk, the smoking talk, and the drugs and drinking talk. But have you talked to your kids about tanning beds? tanning beds

You should. Tanning bed use can cause skin cancer, including the deadliest form, melanoma. And, using tanning beds before age 18 increases a person’s risk of melanoma by 85%.

Equally scary: tanning beds can become addictive. A recent study showed that 80% of college-age tanning beds users couldn’t kick the habit.

“This is why it’s so important to talk to your kids before they ever start tanning,” says Dennis Hughes, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.

Use this cheat sheet to start the tanning talk with your kids.

Be a role model

Before you talk to your child about tanning, make sure you’re setting a good example.

“If you’re visiting the tanning salon, or actively tanning at the beach or pool, your child probably won’t listen when you tell her to avoid tanning beds,” Hughes says. Just like adults who smoke are more likely to have kids who smoke, the same rules apply to adults who tan.

Start the talk early

A kid’s view on tanning is usually set by the time they’re in middle school. “So start talking to your kids when they’re in elementary school,” Hughes says.

“You can usually predict which kids will take to tanning,” Hughes says. “They’re usually body- and image-conscious long before they’re teenagers.” So, include tanning in conversations about body image.

teens and tanningDiscuss the risks in adolescents’ terms

Teens tend to think they’re invincible, so talking about cancer may not scare them away from tanning beds. 

Instead, focus on how tanning will affect their appearance. “Explain that tanning will actually make them look worse,” Hughes suggests.

Drive the point home by saying that:

  • Tanning beds cause premature aging, making your skin look leathery and unattractive.
  • Tanning causes abnormal moles, which aren’t sexy.
  • You may have to get these moles removed, which leaves ugly scars.

Also, know what your kid’s friends are saying about tanning. “Peer pressure plays a role. If their friends view tanning as normal, your kids may view it as normal too,” Hughes says.

Highlight family history

Melanoma in the immediate family? Make sure your kids understand that having a parent, child or sibling with melanoma actually increases their risk of the disease.

And, take time to teach them how to spot changes in their moles, which can become skin cancer.

 “If you can get them to look at their skin once a month, they may start to notice changes and become more proactive,” Hughes says. Make sure you check body parts that your child can’t see, such as the scalp. This area is especially prone to chronic sun damage.

Teach your child to spot and track skin changes with this mole map from the American Academy of Dermatology. Tell your child to alert you if they find anything worrisome.

Set the record straight

Don’t be surprised if your child insists tanning beds are safe. Tanning salons often make false and misleading claims such as:

  • Tanning beds are safer than natural sunlight.
  •  You get more vitamin D from tanning beds.

Give your child a reality-check with these responses:

teens and tanningOffer safe alternatives.

Still getting pushback? Suggest a safe alternative — spray tans, lotions or other self-tanning products. And, offer to foot the bill.

These products provide the same bronzed look as tanning beds — without skin cancer risks, nasty moles or leathery skin.

Hold your ground.

 “Parents need to set limits for their children,” Hughes says. “Tanning beds are too dangerous for you to back down.”

It takes about ten years from the time you tan to develop melanoma. “We want to keep young people out of tanning beds to reduce their chances of skin cancer as adults.”

So, teach your kids to get comfortable in their own non-tanned skin and stand your ground. It could save their life.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center