05/10/2011 08:44 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2011

Despite Serious Risks, Teens Continue Indoor Tanning

Though most teenage tanners believe that tanning beds can cause cancer, many of them go anyway, new research shows. A survey conducted on behalf of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) found that 32 percent of white females between the age of 14 and 22 had used a tanning bed in the last year.

Dr. Ellen Marmur, Chief Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and a member of the AAD, said that in her opinion, tanning beds can be even more harmful to your health than tanning outdoors. Because people take off most, or all, of their clothing, they expose parts of their body that might not otherwise be exposed to sunlight. And because a trip to the salon takes just a few minutes, it is feasible for indoor tanners to go several times a week -- more often than they might head to the beach. This, Marmur says, means increased exposure to harmful rays.

The type of exposure indoor tanners get reportedly makes a difference, too. Dr. Lawrence E. Gibson, a dermatologist with the Mayo Clinic has said: "Most tanning beds emit mainly UVA rays -- which may increase the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer."

Many states across the country have imposed restrictions requiring that minors have parental consent to use tanning beds, and some 20 have bills banning tanning for those under 18, the Associated Press reports. And last Monday, a California state senate panel approved one such bill.

The American Cancer Society has made anti-tanning bans for teenagers one of its top legislative priorities and is currently throwing its weight behind an effort to ban indoor tanning in anyone under 18 in New York. The state currently requires written consent from parents of anyone under 18 and has banned indoor tanning for children 14 and younger. The new bill would extend that ban to anyone under 18.

"We don't let children buy cigarettes, even if they were to come in with a note from mom," said Russ Sciandra, director of advocacy for The American Cancer Society's New York branch. "The government has an obligation to protect kids."

The bill was co-introduced by Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, a former lifeguard for whom the bill is important on a personal level. His wife was diagnosed with melanoma and he himself has had several cancerous moles removed -- one just a few weeks ago.

"These young women -- and it's mostly women -- are going [to the tanning beds] and they're being damaged," he said. "We have to educate and we have to make people aware of the risks, but we also have to deny access. "

For his part, John Overstreet, a spokesperson for the Indoor Tanning Association, disagrees. He believes the issue is beyond the purview of the government, and regards it as a first step from legislators who want to do away with the tanning industry altogether.

"Whether or not the kids get a suntan should be left to their parents, not the government," he said. "It's as simple as that." He adds that in spite of the stance of groups like the American Cancer Society and AAD, he believes there is no definitive evidence linking skin cancer risk with indoor tanning.

But proponents of the bill say it is a key way to help parents protect their kids, who can sometimes give into pressure from teenagers who are desperate to look tan before a big event, like graduation or prom. Indeed, approximately 35 percent of respondents in the ADA survey indicated they felt peer pressure to be tan, and a quarter of those who identified as indoor tanners said they went before a special occasion.

"When you're younger, you're immortal and how you relate to your peers and the people around you is more important than just about anything," Sciandra said. "It'd be a lot easier for parents to stop this kind of behavior if they could just say, 'No, it's against the law.'"

But legality aside, parents -- and particularly mothers -- can play a key role in teens' behavior. Notably, teenagers who tanned indoors were four times more likely to have a mother who shared the same behavior, with 42 percent indicating their moms tanned. (Only 5 percent of all respondents said they had a father who tanned indoors.) Overall, 94 percent of the young indoor tanners surveyed indicated that their parents knew they used tanning beds.

"This survey really shows the role that mothers have in enabling their daughters to use tanning beds," said Marmur. "I'm even hearing stories of mothers who bring their daughters to the tanning salon themselves. Women often dictate how their entire family will behave."