That unhealthy glow
High risk of melanoma isn't stopping young women from visiting tanning salons
Lindsay Walsh, 24, of Orland Park, regularly went to tanning salons until she was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago. Now she gets checked by a dermatologist every three months and regularly goes for CT, PET and MRI scans. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)
Ashley Rizzo, manager of Palm Beach Tan in Highland Park, said spray-tanning used to account for 20 percent of her business; now it's about 65 percent.
Both Rizzo and John Szymski, who owns Toucan Tan in Glenview, as well as other Chicago-area tanning salon proprietors, tout the benefits of vitamin D that is gained with ultraviolet exposure in tanning beds. And both said there's a way to tan responsibly.
"The actual sun in the sky can cause the same (damage) as a tanning bed," Rizzo said. "You should do it the right way, the healthy way — not more than twice a week — for not more than seven minutes each time — to get your vitamin D."
Rizzo, though, acknowledged that some of her clients come daily for 15-minute sessions.
Experts scoff at the notion of responsible tanning.
"There is absolutely no such thing as safe tanning," Levy said. "A tan is a response to injury caused by ultraviolet radiation and causes DNA damage to the cells in your skin."
The vitamin D claims are similarly suspect, he said. Although there is a body of literature suggesting a link between vitamin D and lower incidence of cancer, "you can get more than enough D from food and ambient sun exposure," Levy said.
Overstreet contends that the industry has already been hurt by the recession and by a 10 percent federal tax that was imposed on indoor tanning last year to help fund the health care overhaul.
Dermatologists, who are fighting efforts to repeal the so-called tanning tax, say it sends an important message about the dangers of sunless tanning.
"The fact that this touches so many young people has so many of us concerned," said Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.
Among them is Erin Clement, who frequented the salons from ages 18 to 24. A routine visit to a dermatologist revealed that what appeared to be a tiny freckle on her arm was melanoma.
"I heard of the warnings, but thought it could never happen to me," said the now-26-year-old Chicagoan. "I am healthy and active and don't look like the girls on the 'Jersey Shore' (show) who go tanning seven days a week. If I hadn't have gone to a dermatologist — and I went on a whim — I likely wouldn't have found this."
Walsh, another melanoma survivor, wishes she had gotten the message sooner.
Now she gets checked by a dermatologist every three months and regularly goes for CT, PET and MRI scans. In January, a mole on her back proved to be melanoma, but it was removed and had not spread. Her ordeal has prompted her friends to stop tanning, too, and go for regular skin checks.
Walsh said she has struggled with depression since her diagnosis but also said the experience has changed her in positive ways. Instead of pursuing a teaching career, she plans to attend nursing school this fall. Walsh said she doesn't take things for granted anymore. But she wishes for another change.
"I wish tanning beds would go away," she said.