Sixty-five percent of tanning salon operators in Missouri would allow kids as young as 10 or 12 to use their tanning beds, according to a survey conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
What's more, 43 percent of employees surveyed believed that indoor tanning had no associated risks and 80 percent said the process would prevent future sunburns -- both of which are not true, according to the study's authors.}
"This should serve as a wake-up call for parents in Missouri and other states that don't regulate tanning beds," study co-author Dr. Lynn Cornelius, chief of the division of dermatology and a professor in dermatology at Washington University in Saint Louis, Mo., said in a press release. "With the absence of logical age restrictions, we are failing to protect our children, who are at an increased risk of developing skin cancer when exposed to the high-intensity levels of ultraviolet light that can be received in a tanning bed."
Researchers talked to employees at 243 salons, conducting interviews at each location twice. They pretended they were interested in getting sunless tanning when they spoke to employees. Some employees even told the researchers that they should use a tanning bed before going on vacation to avoid sunburns and that the beds were recommended by medical professionals, which are false claims, the researchers said.
While 40 percent of those surveyed understood skin cancer could be a risk of using a tanning bed, 20 percent incorrectly iterated that the risk was completely gone if precautions were taken, like putting on sunscreen. About 20 percent of the employees correctly said that clients needed to have a pre-tan skin assessment or that they should take some precautionary measures before entering the beds.
Missouri is one of 17 states that do not have an age-restriction when it comes to using tanning beds and does not require parental consent. Evidence has linked tanning bed use to an increased risk of getting skin cancers, including melanoma, when the person is older. Being exposed to ultraviolet light from tanning beds before a person is 35 years old makes them 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma and 2.5 times more likely to develop more common skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell cancers, according to the researchers. A study in October 2012 revealed that tanning salons cause 170,000 skin cancers a year.
"Indoor tanning may seem innocuous at first," Cornelius said. "Due to what is called 'tumor lag time,' or the time between an exposure to a carcinogen such as ultraviolet and the development of a cancer, it may take a decade or longer for someone who has been exposed to artificial ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds to develop a skin cancer."
The World Health Organization recommends people under 18 should not use tanning beds.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. More than 3.5 million skin cancers are found in 2 million people annually.
"The tanning industry today does not have very high standards for safety," said Dr. Bruce Brod, chair of the American Academy of Dermatology's State Policy Committee, told HealthDay. "It's very analogous to the tobacco industry, which used to actually claim that smoking was good for you before it became widely accepted that tobacco is carcinogenic."
He added that even in states with regulations -- such as California and Vermont, which ban minors under 18 and New York which has rules in place for people under 17 -- the sheer number of tanning salons out there make it hard to make sure that everyone is following the rules. However, Brod believes that there should be more laws because at least people might become aware of the dangers.
However, Tracie Cunningham, executive director of the American Suntanning Association, pointed out to CBSNews.com in a statement that the information published in the study is from six years ago, and many of the establishments are closed today. In addition, the researchers conducted all their surveys over the phone without going into a salon. Had they gone inside, the researchers would have seen that there were parental consent standards and consumer warning statements in the businesses.
"The American Suntanning Association and professional tanning salons promote responsible new measures like strong parental consent laws and include warning signs in our businesses," Cunningham said. "While the study authors are using questionable survey methods to lobby for their preferred legislation, they have yet to engage our industry around efforts to promote parental consent and develop responsible legislative alternatives."
The study was published in Pediatrics on Feb. 25.