A woman lost her ear after developing skin cancer from a tanning bed addiction

  • Anthea Smith had to have her ear amputated after developing an aggressive melanoma after years of using tanning beds.
  • The 44-year-old British mother told the BBC that she had never considered the dangers of tanning when she began as a teenager. 
  • Dr. Deborah Jaliman, a New York City-based dermatologist, told Insider that there is no safe way to tan, so opting for a spray tan is the best route to take if you want golden skin and to stay healthy. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Anthea Smith, a 44-year-old mother based in the UK, told the BBC she was absolutely horrified when she noticed a large mass forming on her ear in 2014.

Doctors initially dismissed the growth as a wart, but Smith's ear soon began to turn brown and bleed whenever she touched it. 

A few months later, in 2015, Smith's doctors diagnosed her with stage 3 melanoma, had to aggressively treat the cancer. They amputated her entire left ear, salivary glands, lymph nodes, and left temple bone. 

Once she was diagnosed, Smith realized her skin cancer was the result of years of tanning bed use according to her doctors — but it was something she had never considered when she was a teenager. 

"I lost my left ear to my tanning addiction," Smith told the BBC. "The guilt that I feel to my husband and children, really, that this is all, this was self-inflicted. But it was self-inflicted with no level of knowledge of the dangers."

According to Cancer Research UK, melanoma rates in the UK have doubled since the 1990s, with approximately 16,000 new melanoma skin cancer cases every year — exacerbated by the rising rates of people using tanning beds.  

Dermatologists say tanning addictions should be spoken about in the same way we view substance abuse

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Dr. Deborah Jaliman, a New York City-based dermatologist, told Insider that she sees a number of patients in her office with tanning addictions, which can lead to devastating results as in Smith's case. 

But because addiction is typically talked about in the context of substance use, tanning addiction is an issue often relegated to TV shows like TLC's "My Strange Addiction" and isn't spoken about as a serious health issue. This can make it difficult to gauge when an affinity for sun-kissed skin turns into an addiction. 

However, according to Jaliman, you have a tanning addiction if you intentionally try to maintain a tan year-round by exposing yourself to the sun or tanning beds. 

A 2018 study from the American Association for Cancer Research actually found that tanning addictions are more prevalent among people who have used tanning beds — as one in five white women who have used a tanning bed in the last year showed signs of dependence on the activity. 

While some patients have obvious symptoms of tanning addictions like having a tanning bed in their home, some people can have more subtle signs like tanning every weekend in an effort to maintain their flow all year. 

Because of the shame associated, Jaliman told Insider that some patients will even avoid getting treatment because they know the general medical consensus on excessive tanning. 

"Some patients have sun damage and will stay away from getting it treated because they know they will be right back in the sun or in a tanning bed," Jaliman said.   

According to experts, there is no safe way to tan 

Jaliman told Insider that there is absolutely no safe way to tan — regardless of whether you're using a tanning bed or exposing yourself to the sun without protection for long periods of time. 

"Both tanning beds and staying out in the sun to achieve a tan are not safe," Jaliman said. "Every time you go in the sun you will get [ultraviolet] damage from [ultraviolet A] and [ultraviolet B] rays." 

But if people are keen on being tan year-round, Jaliman said she recommends using fake tan to avoid the harmful UV rays that can cause cancer. 

"I recommend a faux tan. Self-tanners are great," Jaliman said. " You can use them yourself or you can go in a salon and get your body sprayed."

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