BANGOR, Maine — Every time a study comes out that condemns artificial tanning, Fran Dearborn cringes.
Years ago, before she made tanning beds her livelihood, Dearborn suffered from a nagging but not-life-threatening skin rash.
“I went to doctors, tried ointments, pills, you name it,” she said Wednesday. “[Indoor tanning] was the only thing that worked for me.”
So when the International Agency for Research on Cancer recommended earlier this week that rays from tanning beds should be added to the “highest cancer risk” category, Dearborn was understandably upset. She and her business of 25 years — Sunrich Tanning Boutique on Union Street — depend on it.
“I’m tired of all this propaganda,” she said. “People need sunlight. They need Vitamin D. And they can’t always get outside.”
Health care professionals have long warned about the high-watt ultraviolet rays associated with indoor tanning beds and booths, but some experts now believe those rays can be as carcinogenic as cigarettes, asbestos and arsenic.
The World Health Organization estimates that 60,000 people die every year as a direct result of sun exposure and about 80 percent of those people had malignant skin cancer. Nationwide, melanoma is the second-most common cancer for women ages 20 to 29, according to the America Melanoma Foundation.
Perhaps the most damning statistic from the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s recent analysis — which looked at 20 individual studies — is this: The risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent for people who begin using tanning beds before age 30.
Dr. Norman Sykes, a dermatologist who practices in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, called the rate of artificial tanning among young people “disturbingly pervasive.”
Before coming to Maine, Sykes practiced in Philadelphia. He remembered treating a young woman who began tanning in her early teens, developed melanoma and died at age 21.
“Since I’ve been an independent practitioner, the diagnoses keep getting younger and younger,” Sykes said.
And yet, the demand for indoor tanning may never be greater. In the Bangor area, where natural sunlight can be absent for days at a time, there are 22 tanning salons listed in the most recent phone book.
Amy Bostwick, 22, whose parents opened SunSeekers Tanning Salon in 2006, said her biggest client group is college-age adults.
“I can’t say it’s healthy, but it is a good source of Vitamin D,” she said Wednesday from the quiet second-story salon on Hammond Street, which features six individual tanning units. “People come in for all types of reasons.”
Anyone who makes an appointment at SunSeekers — and all tanning salons — signs a release that indicates the customer is tanning at his or her own risk. People are allowed to tan only once every 24 hours.
At Kool Rayz on Wilson Street in Brewer, owner Kristine Chapman said most people don’t really ask about the health risks. Tanning salons are typically slow this time of year, but Chapman still had 40 customers on Tuesday.
“Some people don’t like laying out in the sun,” she said. “Some people don’t have time.”
It’s not just cosmetic, according to Dearborn. Tanning beds can be used to treat psoriasis, acne and depression. If she were 20 years younger, she said, she would start a business selling tanning beds to nursing homes.
“People get depressed if they don’t get sunlight,” she said. “I believe I’ve done a lot of good in my 25 years in this business.”
Dearborn still doesn’t believe that there is a direct link between tanning bed rays and skin cancer.
“You can get skin cancer without ever being in the sun,” she said.
Sykes agreed that there are benefits to sun exposure, artificial or otherwise, but he cautioned strongly against self-treatment.
“It’s extremely risky, and many [dermatologists] feel that with young people the risks far outweigh any benefits,” he said.