- UV radiation produced by tanning beds increases the likelihood of developing skin cancer.
- Other risks include premature skin aging, changes in skin texture, and eye disease.
- The few benefits of indoor tanning are outweighed by these risks, and can be achieved through safer means.
Medical professionals are almost universal in their opposition to indoor tanning beds, which are widely recognized as harmful and potentially dangerous. Many states have banned minors from visiting tanning salons, as have all Canadian provinces. Australia has banned commercial tanning salons entirely.
Yet despite the dangers presented, the tanning industry earns billions of dollars each year. Tans are often perceived as attractive, and many people visit tanning salons to increase their vitamin D levels. Here’s what you need about the dangers of tanning beds.
Risks of Indoor Tanning Beds
The greatest risk posed by tanning beds is the increased likelihood of developing skin cancer. Exposure to UV radiation can damage skin cells’ DNA. Over time, repeated exposure can result in melanoma—the most dangerous type of skin cancer—as well as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the United States Department of Health and Human Services are unequivocal: both have listed UV exposure as a known human carcinogen.
In order to mimic the sun’s rays, tanning beds produce UVA and UVB rays, putting users at risk.
The difference between the two is the extent to which they penetrate the skin:
- UVA rays penetrate deep within the skin
- UVB rays usually burn the superficial layers of the skin and play a key role in the development of cancer
It’s not a small risk, either. Dr. Pamela Carr, of Carr Dermatology in Sugar Land, TX, asserts that using tanning beds can increase the chances of developing melanoma by 59%.
Because they make up the majority of the tanning industry’s clientele, young women are the most at-risk group of developing cancer. Following are a few key facts:
- Women under 30 who tan are six times more likely to develop melanoma than those who don’t.
- One study involving 63 women who developed melanoma before age 30 found that 97% of them had used tanning beds.
- Young women have higher rates of melanoma than men of the same age.
- Melanoma is the second most common type of cancer in women aged 15–29.
The risk of skin cancer from tanning is compounded by the fact that white female adolescents, who are prone to skin cancer due to their skin type, are also the most likely group to tan due to the perceived aesthetic benefits.
In the short term, tanning may provide the appearance of a healthy glow. In the long term, it causes premature skin aging.
“Tanning beds do a lot of damage, as skin texture and elasticity changes, pores enlarge, and exfoliation slows down—leaving your skin looking dull,” explains Dr. Fiona Wright of Skin M.D. and Beyond in Plano, TX. Furthermore, damage to DNA from UV rays results in “a breakdown in collagen and elastin—which creates wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin.”
The UV exposure in tanning beds can also lead to lentigo—brown pigmented lesions often found on older people.
Put succinctly, exposure to UV rays will prematurely age a person’s skin, accelerating all the processes that usually accompany aging.
The skin is not the only body part UV rays can damage; the eyes are vulnerable as well. UV rays can cause cataracts and, in some cases, cancer of the uvea—a layer of the eye.
Exposure to UV rays can also lead to photokeratitis and photoconjunctivitis. Photokeratitis—also known as snow blindness—is essentially a sunburn of the cornea caused by the rays, and can result in swelling, blurred vision, and irritated eyes. Similarly, photoconjunctivitis results from overexposure of the membranes surrounding the eye. Neither condition is known to cause long-term damage, but both are unpleasant.
In addition to its physical effects, the repeated use of tanning beds can also result in psychological dependence. In a 2017 Georgetown University Medical Center study, a survey of young, white women showed that more than one in five had signs of being addicted to the high dose of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning beds.
Researchers believe dependence can develop for two reasons:
- UV radiation has been demonstrated to increase dopamine response and have positive mood altering affects—a response that is similar to drug addiction.
- Due to the perceived aesthetic benefits, people who tan frequently receive the psychological reward of feeling better about their looks.
Tanning addiction can be compounded by certain mental disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder or body dysmorphic disorder. These conditions cause people to have false negative perceptions of their body and obsess over their appearance.
Benefits of Tanning Beds: Facts and Myths
One of the greatest arguments in favor of tanning is that UV radiation is required to produce Vitamin D. Specifically, UVB radiation is crucial in the production of previtamin D3, a process that takes place in the skin.
Vitamin D is indeed important. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to a number of conditions including fatigue, osteoporosis, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
Specific groups of people are at risk of having low levels of vitamin D, including:
- People with darker skin, as high levels of melanin in the skin can make it difficult for the body to synthesize vitamin D
- Adults over 55, as aging skin can’t synthesize vitamin D as efficiently as young skin
- People who take medicines that affect vitamin D levels
Just how much sunlight do you need to get for your body to produce vitamin D? Dr. Shondra Smith of Lake Charles, LA, explains, “Studies have shown that 5–20 minutes of sun exposure on the face, arms, and hands every other day is sufficient to meet daily requirements and that additional exposure will not further increase the total amount of previtamin D3.”
While visiting a tanning booth that provides UVB light can indeed help your body synthesize vitamin D3, it’s not the only option. People who can’t get adequate sunshine could consider taking supplements instead of subjecting their skin to UV damage.
Eating foods high in vitamin D like fatty fish, cheese, and eggs can also help increase your intake.
Sunlamps can also be beneficial in small doses. “In those areas with limited UV at certain times of the year, tanning with indoor UV on the arms, hands and face 2–3 times a week for 5–10 minutes is sufficient, when natural daily exposure is not possible,” says Dr. Smith.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Inadequate sunlight doesn’t just bring about low levels of vitamin D—it can also cause a type of depression, known medically as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is often treated through light therapy. Exposure to sunlight has been linked to improved energy and mood. However many people have wrongly concluded that tanning beds will treat their SAD. Light therapy acts through the eyes and relies on visible light, whereas the dangerous UV radiation emitted by tanning beds is invisible light.
Acne, Psoriasis, and Eczema
Sunlight can help with acne problems—but not as a result of UV radiation.
“Many people try tanning beds to clear their acne, but this belief is commonly misunderstood,” says Dr. Wright. “When you are outside, your skin absorbs blue light, which will reduce oil production in the skin, reduce inflammation, and decrease bacteria in the skin. Tanning may reduce your acne for a short time because the UV ray exposure causes dry skin, which may reduce the oil that causes acne. However, after you tan, your skin will rebound and produce more oil which causes even more acne outbreaks.”
In contrast to acne, indoor tanning is effective for treating psoriasis, and in the past this was an option. Today, there are many effective treatments for psoriasis without the risk of UV damage. This applies to the treatment of eczema—prescription and over-the-counter medications are safe and effective choices.
A Base Tan
It’s commonly believed that having a base tan can protect skin from sunburns. This is only true to a very small extent—a UV-induced base tan only provides minimal sun protection. Forego the base tan and be truly safe from UV damage: wear protective clothing and sunscreen.
Alternatives to Tanning Beds
If you still wish to have darker skin, there are safer alternatives:
- Use natural sunlight. Wear sunscreen and remember that UV rays are at their highest levels from around 10 am to 2 pm, and are especially strong in the summer. Keep in mind that clouds don’t stop all UV rays, and some surfaces like sand and snow may reflect UV rays to increase your exposure.
- Apply sunless tanning lotions. These products allow you to have a safe long-lasting tan without the sun damage.
- Use self-tanning towelettes. Similar to tanning lotions, they offer convenience and are easily disposed of.
- Try a professional airbrushing. This can be a convenient method to achieve the appearance of a tan and it should last about a week.