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What’s the 411 on tanning beds?

Dear Alice,

I have been going every two weeks to a nearby tanning salon in the neighborhood. It is a spa and boutique, among other things, and offers a variety of different beds. The bed I have been using is called "The Saturn" is actually a stand-up machine that you enter into for about ten to twelve minutes. It has little UVB rays, and mostly UVA... which I was told by the owner that the UVB are more dangerous since they tend to burn the skin. (Unless I got them confused in my head) Anyway, my mother is really nervous about me tanning. I wanted to know, that if done in moderation (i.e. every two weeks), is it really that bad considering the bed I have been using? I'm a girl who, in the summer, goes out to the beach and the pool and while I wear sunscreen, I get pretty dark. Is it ok to keep doing this?

Sincerely,
Paler by the day

Dear Paler by the day, 

Contrary to popular belief, indoor tanning (i.e., the use of a tanning bed, tanning booth, or sunlamp) isn’t safer than outdoor tanning. That's because tanning beds may expose you to similar, if not more, intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In fact, research indicates that indoor tanning increases the risk of developing skin cancer. When the skin becomes tan, it’s actually a sign of UV skin damage, which busts the myth of a “healthy” tan. The change in skin color happens as a result of the body creating more melanin to try to protect itself from further damage. 

UV radiation is a form of energy that’s naturally emitted from the sun and used in tanning beds. The tanning salon owner was correct when they mentioned that tanning beds mostly emit ultraviolet A (UVA) and lower levels of ultraviolet B (UVB). UVA has a longer wavelength and is linked to skin aging, whereas UVB has a shorter wavelength and is linked to skin burning. Although the owner was right about UVB’s association with burns, there’s more to the story than what they told you. The truth is, UVA can also cause burns, and can actually penetrate your skin, damaging the deeper skin cells where most skin cancers occur. 

Depending on the UV intensity and how long your skin is exposed, both UVA and UVB can damage your skin cells’ genetic material even if you don’t burn. Damage from tanning—whether it be indoor or outdoor—is cumulative since your body can’t repair each and every skin cell that becomes damaged. That said, tanning in any setting may increase your risk of: 

  • Developing skin cancers, including melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer). Benign moles may also be more likely to become melanoma. 
  • Developing eye damage, cataracts, and eye and eyelid cancers. 
  • Faster skin aging. You may develop wrinkles, age spots, and loose and leathery skin. 

In addition to these general tanning risks, people who engage in indoor tanning may experience serious burns or loss of consciousness and be at an increased risk of getting melanoma more than once. Some studies have also suggested that indoor tanning can be addictive, though these effects aren’t well understood. Altogether, these risks are serious enough that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires warning labels on all indoor tanning equipment. Additionally, the FDA doesn’t recommend use of tanning devices by minors. In fact, many states have passed regulations prohibiting the use of tanning devices by minors. 

To get a tan without the risky rays, you might consider sunless tanning products instead. Certain sunless tanning products have FDA-approved color additives like dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that stain the skin for a short period of time. Bronzers come as tinted moisturizers or brush-on powders, and sunless tanners (also known as self-tanners or extenders) are lotions or creams that react with proteins on the skin to create a darker color. Both are safe when used properly and in combination with sunscreen since they often don’t offer UV protection on their own. 

However, not all products lacking UV radiation are considered safer. That said, it may be helpful to know about and be wary of, other less-safe sunless tanning products that you may encounter such as: 

  • Spray tans. Although spray tans usually contain FDA-approved DHA, DHA is meant for external use only and may cause harm if inhaled or if it gets into your mouth or eyes. Scientists are continuing to monitor the health risks of DHA. If you choose to get a spray tan, consider asking the attendant at the salon how you can protect those areas. 
  • Tanning pills. When swallowed, the color additives in the pills spread throughout your body and turn your skin an orange-like color. Although some of the color additives have been FDA-approved for food coloring, they are not approved for tanning because they may be harmful in the high levels found in pill form. These pills have been linked to liver and skin problems, and ingredients have been reported to appear as yellow crystals in the eyes, causing injury and impaired vision. 
  • Tanning shots and nasal sprays. Certain ingredients in these unregulated and unapproved products trigger skin cells to produce more melanin. However, these products have been linked to nausea, vomiting, and increased risk of developing melanoma. 
  • Tanning accelerators. These lotions or pills are often marketed as being able to stimulate the body to tan, but most evidence indicates they don’t work and may be dangerous. 

List adapted from American Cancer Society 

The bottom line is that any exposure to UV radiation may be harmful, outdoor and indoor tanning alike. Using proper sun protection and taking precautions may mitigate these risks. While there are sunless tanning products available, you may want to be wary about certain products since they may be harmful for different reasons. And it may also be helpful to remember—skin in any shade is a good look!  

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Last updated Nov 24, 2023
Originally published Feb 17, 2006