Are tanning beds safe?

Tanning beds have become very popular over the last several years. Tan skin has become more and more popular, and many people feel that they are more attractive with a suntan than with their natural skin color. There is also a very common misguided belief that the key to avoiding the pain of sunburn and the associated increased risk of skin cancer is to slowly build up a suntan, which will protect the person from burning. Using tanning beds seems like a convenient, easy way to get the tan skin that many people want to feel more attractive and avoid sunburns. While tanning beds make it easier to darken the skin, tanning is not a good idea. Unlike sunburns, suntans are not painful, but they are still a sign of skin damage. Remember, any change in skin color as a result of exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is a sign of damage. Tanning beds and the sun both cause darkening of the skin by emitting UVR. This means that the tan you get from a tanning bed is a sign of skin damage.

Some tanning beds are falsely advertised as being safe because they do not emit UVB rays, only UVA rays. UVB rays are notorious as the main cause of sunburns. UVA rays, on the other hand, are more likely to cause tanning than burning. UVA rays can still cause sunburns. Even if a tanning bed user never gets burned, the tanning bed is still causing harm, because the tan itself is a display of skin damage. Using tanning beds greatly increases the risk of the more common types of skin cancer: basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers are not as deadly as melanoma, but they can require painful surgeries for their removal and may leave severely disfiguring scars. Tanning also increases the risk of melanoma (though not as much as basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma). People with blonde hair, light eyes (not brown), fair skin, or a family history of skin cancer are at an increased risk. If you have any of these traits, it is very important to avoid tanning beds and protect your skin from sun damage. There are people who develop all kinds of skin cancer who do not have any of these risk factors. That means that everyone should avoid tanning beds and protect their skin from sun exposure. Death from skin cancer is fairly uncommon, but both skin cancer deaths and the number of nonfatal cases of skin cancer are steadily increasing. If you live to be at least 65 years old (we certainly hope so!), you have a 40%-50% chance of having at least one episode of skin cancer. This risk is much higher if you use tanning beds, and the more you use them, the more your skin cancer risk grows. The best thing you can do to reduce this risk is avoid tanning beds and protect your skin from sun exposure. UVR is also the cause of most signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, leathery skin, and uneven skin color (blotches and age spots). The more a person’s skin is exposed to UVR, the faster and more dramatically his or her skin will age. The best way to maintain a youthful appearance is to avoid UV skin damage, which includes burns and tans from the sun and from tanning beds.

Tanning beds are especially harmful, because they emit 10-15 times as much UVR as the midday sun! That means spending 10 minutes in a tanning bed is like sunbathing for about 2 hours. If you use a tanning bed, you can cause great damage to your skin in a very short time. Remember, the more time you spend tanning, the greater your risk of all types of skin cancers, and the faster your skin will age. If you still want tan skin but want to avoid all these risks, you can try a self-tanning product. These products dye the skin and do not cause skin damage. Years ago, self-tanning products were known for giving the skin an unnatural, orange tint. Self-tanning products have come a long way since then, and when used appropriately, make the skin appear naturally tan. Before you use a self-tanning product, make sure you get your parent’s permission, choose a product made for your skin tone (for example, if you have fair skin, use a product with a label that says it is for fair or light skin), and read the instructions carefully so that you understand exactly how to use it.

Besides avoiding tanning beds, it is important to protect your skin from the UVR in sunlight. Please see our “Summer Safety Tips” packet for important tips on protecting your skin and eyes from sun damage.

Much of the information included in this handout came from the Skin Cancer Foundation. For more helpful information about the risks of sun exposure and how you can protect yourself from sun damage, visit their website, http://www.skincancer.org.