My Story: Why Tanning Isn't For Kids

Jennifer Sullivan photo

Eastern Division | CancerNYNJ Newsroom | News Updates | Contact Us

by Jennifer L. Sullivan - Director of Strategic Health Alliances for the American Cancer Society and seven year melanoma survivor

New York State is on the verge of passing a law that would prevent anyone under 18 years old from using cancer-causing tanning beds. All that's stopping it is opposition from a few state senators, several of them here in the Buffalo area. I'm flabbergasted.

People think tanning is safe and harmless. Commercials show happy teens getting their tan before prom. Some incredibly irresponsible representatives from tanning companies have even suggested all this is healthy. I can tell you, first-hand, there is nothing healthy, harmless or safe about blasting your skin with radiation in a tanning bed.

How do I know?

Early in the morning, on Election Day 2004, I called my dermatologist's office and spoke to Diane the nurse. She’d been in the room with me a week earlier when I’d had four “suspicious” moles removed. Diane told me that one of the moles needed some further procedure, but not to worry. I asked what the biopsy result was and she said melanoma. She added that I’d be fine and they’d just need to excise a little bit more “to clear the margins." But in that moment you don’t hear “fine,” at that moment, all you hear is "you have cancer."

It’s a feeling that you never want to experience, the words echoing in your head. I sat at my desk chair trying to process what Diane just said to me, but what also raced through my mind was that nice bronze tan.

I have very fair and freckly skin so as a teen, I spent an enormous amount of time chasing that nice bronze tan. I spent hours in the sun and under the glowing UV lamps at tanning beds. All to get that nice bronzed tan.

In the winter, before prom and other occasions, my usual process was to get my initial burn for the year and then the tan would come. When I say I burned, I was burnt to a crisp and the pain that went with it was for complete vanity. My parents were horrified with my irresponsible tanning habits. My mom would take pictures of me as keep sake on vacation to remind me what an idiot I was for putting my skin through this.

But I was young, thought I knew it all and none of it fazed me. Little did I know that 10-15 years later I'd be the first person in my family to be diagnosed with skin cancer, not something I think is worthy of hanging a plaque on the wall over.

All of those experiences are what brings me to write this. Kids should not have access to tanning beds. It is that simple.

New York gets accused – especially by people who profit from selling tanning services to adolescents – of being a nanny state. But maybe giving parents more support isn’t such a bad thing. Kids under 18 can’t buy cigarettes which, like tanning, are considered a group 1 cancer risk by the IARC. And I think back to the arguments I had with my mom and dad about tanning 20 years ago and know they would have appreciated the government backing up their decision.

Tanning beds are not safe for anyone let alone kids. I have 21 scars to prove this. This is not the same as being out in the sun, It's 12 times stronger!

There is a growing amount of evidence showing just how serious this problem is. People who use any type of tanning bed for any amount of time are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma. Skin cancer is the most common cancer for young adults age 25 to 29. I have the scars to prove those two facts as well.

As I think of Diane and that Election Day 2004, two things are very clear. First, New York needs to do the responsible thing and prevent kids from using tanning booths – period. And second, that nice bronze tan I spent so much time pursuing wasn’t so nice after all.

Additional Resources
Support Grows for Tan Ban
Study Links Tanning Bed Use to Increased Risk of Melanoma
Expert Voices - Suntan or Booth Tan: Your Skin Can't Tell the Difference
Skin Cancer - Melanoma Information