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High school girls here use tanning beds at a dangerous rate

Another reason to stay away: This is the creepy-looking inside of a tanning bed.
Another reason to stay away: This is the creepy-looking inside of a tanning bed.

This time of year, you're as likely to see a natural tan on a home-bound Minnesotan as you are a bronze on a polar bear. Eleventh-grade girls, however, are still trying to fight nature.

More than one-third of Minnesota girls in 11th grade reported tanning indoors in the last year, according to data released today by the Minnesota Department of Health. More than half of those girls hit the tanning bed 10 or more times.

"It strikes me as high," says Michelle Strangis, cancer policy coordinator with the MDH, of the new numbers. "Indoor tanning is a very risky behavior. Very risky. To have that percentage of 11th graders using indoor tanning facilities is very concerning."

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The data comes from the Minnesota Student Survey, the tool that asks middle and high schoolers statewide about issues ranging from bullying to exercise, and offers some answers about what it's like to be a teenager in Minnesota.

For the first time in 2013, the survey also asked students about tanning. The MDH decided to include the question after seeing rates of melanoma -- the most serious skin cancer -- increase among young women about 5 percent every year for 15 years. That increase means that over that 15-year period, the number of young women getting diagnosed each year has doubled.

"We've become very concerned about prevention of melanoma in this young population," explains Strangis. "Minnesota is a state that never had this data, and this came from thinking about important steps that we can take to prevent or at least stop the increase in melanoma among young women. We now have hard data."

The survey results show that as Minnesota teenagers move through high school, their use of tanning beds jumps dramatically.

For white 8th graders, just 2 percent of men and 6 percent of women reported indoor tanning. By 9th grade, the numbers jumped to 3 percent and 13 percent.

In 11th grade, the prevalence was all the way up to 5 percent  for men, and 34 percent for women. Among non-white students, only about 8 percent across all three grades reported using a tanning device.

Across the country, states that use a different, national survey to ask students about their indoor tanning practices found similar numbers: 29 percent of all white female high school students reported indoor tanning. For the country's 11th grade age group, the numbers were even higher: 31.1 percent for 16-year-old women, and a startling 39.3 percent for 17-year-old women.

Despite the industry's best efforts to reassure customers that tanning is safe, doctors have long been crowing about its dangers. Beds deliver 10 to 15 times more UV rays than sunlight does, and it's that UV radiation that causes melanomas.

To raise awareness about the dangers of tanning, the MDH is sponsoring a video challenge. It's put out the call for teens to make an educational video, and is offering two $1,000 cash prizes to the winners.

"We want to encourage students to re-think that behavior, and create a new norm for what is healthy-looking skin," Strangis says. "That's your natural skin. That's what's healthy."

-- Tips or comments? Reach Olivia LaVecchia by email or on Twitter at @olavecchia


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