Each year millions of Americans visit tanning salons in search of that "healthy glow." But if you think tanning beds are a safe alternative to sunbathing, think again. The results of a new study, detailed in a report published today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, suggest that people who use these devices may have an increased risk of developing skin cancers.

The findings shouldn't come as a surprise, according to Dartmouth Medical School epidemiologist Margaret R. Karagas, the lead author of the report. "We know that ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure that comes from the sun is a major cause of skin cancer. Tanning lamps mimic sunlight and provide such an intense, concentrated dose of UVR, we would predict that people who use these devices may get skin cancers," she explains. "Also, tanning lamp users often get a burn like a sunburn, and sunburns are linked to the risk of all three skin cancers" basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma."

Karagas and her colleagues focused on the association between tanning devices and the more prevalent basal cell and squamous cell cancers, which together constitute the most common malignancy in the U.S. The team interviewed 603 basal cell carcinoma patients, 293 squamous cell carcinoma patients and 540 skin cancer-free individuals to obtain information about their tanning device use, sun exposure history, sun sensitivity and other skin cancer risk factors. Participants who reported any use of tanning devices, they found, were 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma than those who didn't. Factors such as previous sun exposure, sunbathing and sunburns did not account for these increased risks.

Although the effects were similar in men and women, the researchers note that use of tanning devices was most frequently reported by female study subjects ages 50 and younger. Importantly, the study also revealed that the risk of basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma increased by 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively, for each decade younger the subject was at first use of a tanning device. Citing recent studies that found that up to 51 percent of high school-age girls reported using a commercial tanning bed at least four times in the past year, the researchers assert that "we must consider an appropriate health response."