As the weather gets warmer and the clothing get smaller, tans are the must-have accessory, and many teens are taking to tanning beds.
"Tanning beds allow me to tan a lot quicker," said Hope Meadows, a 16-year old sophomore at Greenbrier High School.
Compared with basting hours in the sun, tanning beds, which use ultraviolet light to darken the skin, take only a few minutes to produce the results Elizabeth Stewart, 15, prefers.
"I was very, very fair," the Greenbrier freshman said. "I tried laying out; it just wasn't as fast. It takes too long to lay out. If you go to a tanning bed, depending on which bed you use, you can have a tan after 15, 20 minutes."
Tanning beds, which have taken on the role of cosmetic fast-food, also are supposed to produce better tans, said Randi Sykes, 15.
"Inside, you get better color," said the Midland Valley High School freshman. "You actually turn a color (with tanning beds), where outside you turn red."
That may be true sometimes, but the disadvantages of tanning beds also have to be taken into consideration, dermatologists say.
"Dermatologists are in 100 percent agreement that tanning beds are harmful to your health," said Loretta Davis, a professor of dermatology at the Medical College of Georgia. "They pose an equal threat and an even greater threat than the sun does. Part of that is because you can get a tan in the tanning bed 365 days a year, and a lot of us don't get in the sun 365 days."
Dr. Davis said that although tanning beds may not always cause burning, they aren't necessarily less dangerous.
"A tan is your body's response to ultraviolet damage," she said. "The pigments of the skin change color to protect themselves, so you can't get a tan without causing ultraviolet damage."
That damage, over time, can amount to disaster.
The Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation found that the use of a tanning bed, as opposed to tanning naturally, can as much as double the risk of developing skin cancer later.
Studies also show that people who begin tanning artificially at a younger age are at higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
Although any overexposure to sun can increase the chances of cancer, frequent tanning-bed users are prone to melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, which causes dark-brown, molelike growths on the arms, legs and other parts of their body.
Overexposure to UV rays also will leave tanners with wrinkled, spotted, and leather-textured skin as they age. In short, a frequent tanner will look "old" sooner, Dr. Davis said.
Tanning isn't just a negative , said Joseph Levy, the president of International Smart Tan Network, an educational institute that provides information on and for the tanning industry.
"To say that UV light is harmful and you should stay away from UV light in tanning beds is like saying that since water causes drowning, you should stay away from water," he said. "It's a gross over-simplification of the truth,"
Although he does not deny that the burning that can result from some tans can be harmful later in life, Mr. Levy said tanning salons are not the monsters that opponents make them out to be.
"If they go to an educated facility that has achieved certification from the proper places, then they should be better protected from getting sunburned," he said.
What's most important is making informed choices, Mr. Levy said.
"If they're able to tan, then they need to know what their skin can handle and avoid sunburn, particularly early in life," he said. "The key is to teach them intelligent moderation. What I call the creed of smart tanning is this: Moderate sun exposure for people who can develop tans is the smartest way to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk associated with too much or too little sunlight."
Still, many teens overlook or are unaware of the risks.
"The consequences don't develop until years later," Dr. Davis said. "No one thinks that you're going to be 30 when you're 13 or 17. But you'd hate to be the 30-year-old who has the skin cancer on their nose because of tanning."
Elizabeth, who visits a tanning salon two to three times a week in the summer and about twice a month in the winter, said she only recently learned of the risks associated with tanning.
"It made me think twice, but I haven't stopped," she said. "It's addictive. It's hard to stop when you get started. You don't want to come out all pale and people ask you what happened."
Elizabeth said a tan is thought to make a person look attractive.
"When you're tan, you look and feel better about yourself. I think it makes me look healthy," she said. "Models are always tan when you look at them."
Randi agreed that appearance is the major motivation for her and many other teens when visiting tanning salons.
"It makes you look better in your outfits and everything," she said, adding that while she tans for herself, a lot of people do it to look good for other people.
It's the concern over gaining and keeping that "healthy" look that compels frequent users flock to the riskier sun lamps, Elizabeth said.
"I think (teens) kind of know it's risky, they just don't care. You kind of ignore it because you'd rather look good," she said.
Dr. Davis said that while that sentiment may be true now, it doesn't last long:
"If you talk to someone who is 40 or 50," she said, "they all regret the sun exposure they got as teenagers-all of them."
Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.