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Despite rising melanoma rates, teens' tanning for prom still the norm

Courtesy of Mary Eckert

Mary Eckert holds up the yellow dress she bought to wear at prom.

With prom still about a month away, Mary Eckert has already found the perfect yellow floor-length dress, but she says she's behind on her tanning schedule.

"Girls already started, it's crazy," Eckert, a junior at a high school in Manheim, Pa., told mnsbc.com.

She plans to start tanning next week by spending 12 minutes on a tanning bed every other day or so. Her yellow dress will look better on tanned skin, Eckert said.

"I think people just look better when they're tan," she added.

The prom and tanning go hand-in-hand, but the practice has come under renewed scrutiny after a recent study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found the incidence of melanoma in young adults has soared, with a sixfold increase in the past 40 years. The rise is particularly noteworthy in young women ages 18 to 39, where the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold from 1970 to 2009, and fourfold in young men.

“The number one thing – stop going to tanning beds,” dermatologist Dr. Jerry Brewer, one of the study’s authors, told NBC News. “All correlations point toward that as the reason for the increase.”

For young women, melanoma rates on the rise

In a statement released last week, the Indoor Tanning Association called the study "a leap of pure speculation."

"There is no consensus among researchers regarding the relationship between melanoma skin cancer and UV exposure either from the sun or a sunbed," the association said.

While the dress remains the pièce de résistance of prom night, hairstyle, makeup and glowing skin are seen as essentials to complete a perfect look for a very special night.

'Everybody's going to do it'
Tanning sessions are not cheap, but salons offer student specials, 2-for-1 offers or package deals. Eckert pays $27 for a monthly membership that allows her to go daily, if she chooses. She said she pays for it herself from the money she earns working at a grocery store.

"I know that everybody's going to do it for prom," she said, including some boys.

Eckert says she's aware there are some health risks that come with tanning, but "I just do not think about that because it makes me nervous."

If her skin gets burned, she said, she puts on aloe or lotion. "Even if I burn, when I peel I get dark," she added.

Jean O'Reilly

Ann Hinrichs says her turquoise dress will look great on her natural skin color.

People get pressured into tanning because so many teens do it, Ann Hinrichs, a junior at a high school in Fridley, Minn., told msnbc.com. She says she's never tanned indoors because skin cancer runs in her family, and added that she doesn't understand the appeal. Some girls, she said, just end up looking orange. 

"It just doesn't look natural," Hinrichs said.

There have been efforts in several states to limit indoor tanning for minors. Minnesota introduced a special tax on tanning and last year California enacted a law prohibiting those under 18 from indoor tanning. Illinois, Utah, Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are considering similar bans.

For many teens, however, tanning is a way of life, not just another step in preparation for prom. Eckert said she's had her salon membership for about three months, though she doesn't plan on going often after prom. In the summer, she says, she tans on the beach every day.

"When I tan, it makes me feel better, you know?" she said.

For her part, Hinrichs says her turquoise dress will look great on her natural skin color.

"One night shouldn't completely change the way I look," she added.

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