How to talk to teens about tanning beds

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?

You should. Tanning bed use can cause skin cancer, including the deadliest form, melanoma. And, using tanning beds before age 30 increases a person’s risk of melanoma by 75%.

Equally worrisome: 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. Use these tips to start the conversation.

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, your child probably won’t listen when you tell her to avoid tanning beds.

Start the talk early

You can usually predict which kids will take to tanning. They’re usually body- and image-conscious long before they’re teenagers.

Start talking to your kids about tanning before they’re teens, and include tanning in conversations about body image.

Discuss 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.

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.

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.

Teach your child to spot and track skin changes with this mole map from the American Academy of Dermatology.

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:

  • Tanning beds emit the same harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays as the sun. That includes UV-A rays, which increase your risk for melanoma.
  • Few young people have a vitamin D deficiency. You get enough vitamin D from food and daily comings and goings. Plus, you usually get too much ultraviolet light from tanning beds, and that can actually cause you to start losing vitamin D.

Offer 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. Tanning beds are too dangerous for you to back down.

So, get comfortable in your own non-tanned skin and stand your ground. It could save your child’s life.

Dennis Hughes is assistant professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.

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  • Olivia Morrissette

    I think this is a really important issue, but unfortunately it isn’t brought up very often.  Thanks, Dr. Hughes, for writing about it.