Indoor Tanning Among Teens Associated With Drug Use, Study Finds

The study found a stronger association than researchers expected; it appears that risky behavior in one area implies risky behavior elsewhere.

Indoor tanning beds have been associated with melanoma, yet 1 in 5 teenagers has used an ultraviolet (UV) tanning bed at least once.

What makes a teenager willing to risk skin cancer just to look good? A Colorado survey found that those who were taking the chance were also more likely to be gambling with their health through substance abuse, especially marijuana.

Results of the survey were reported yesterday in a research letter in JAMA Dermatology. The questionnaire was administered to 12,000 high school students between August and December 2013, just before the state became the first to legalize retail sales of marijuana for adults over the age of 21.

Researchers say that indoor tanning doesn’t just fulfill a desire to improve one’s appearance—like recreational drugs, it can activate addictive pathways in the brain. The survey found that any alcohol use within the past 30 days and marijuana use were associated with indoor tanning, as was any lifetime use of certain illicit drugs.

Despite the biologic basis for the association, Robert Dellavalle, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said the team was surprised at the findings, and the strength of the association.

“Risky behaviors tend to go together,” he said. “So someone who does indoor tanning may more easily move on to other risky behaviors, like illicit drug use.

The survey data confirmed what cancer data sadly bear out: young women are twice as likely to use tanning beds as young men. Data on melanoma show that more women than men are diagnosed with melanoma between 15 and 49, with a cluster of young women are diagnosed with melanoma in their late 20s and early 30s. Among men, the disease tends to be diagnosed much later, in their 50s and 60s.

Researchers found one troubling trend among the boys: tanning is associated with illegal steroid use. For all teens, Dellavalle said that if parents know their children are tanning frequently, they should check for drug use.

The World Health Organization has classified UV radiation as a group 1 carcinogen, which puts users of indoor tanning beds at a higher risk of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

The FDA announced in December 2015 plans to ban teens under age 18 from using indoor tanning beds. Eleven states already have bans, and many others have restrictions including parental consent.


Sendelweck MA, Bell E, Anderson AM, Ashack K, Pindyck T, Townley C, Dellavalle RP. Associations between indoor tanning and substance use among Colorado high school students [published online January 20, 2016]. JAMA Dermatol. 2016; doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.5663.