You know that basking in the sun is bad for you — sun worshippers have prematurely aging skin, wrinkles, and maybe even skin cancer to look forward to. But you're no fan of the Morticia Addams look either.
Tempted to try a tanning salon? Maybe you've heard that sunbeds only use "safe" UVA light, avoiding the UVB light that causes burning. But unfortunately it's not that simple. UVA rays can cause just as much — if not more — damage than UVB rays because they penetrate the skin more deeply. In fact, doctors say that the use of tanning salons is one reason they're treating more young patients for skin cancer.
Indoor Tanning vs. Sunlight
The sun's rays contain two types of ultraviolet radiation that affect your skin: UVA and UVB. UVB radiation burns the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), causing sunburns. UVA radiation penetrates to the lower layers of the epidermis, where it triggers cells called melanocytes (pronounced: mel-an-oh-sites) to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes tanning.
Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin aging. Both types also can cause potentially cancerous changes in your cells' DNA. And, according to a recent study, radiation from just 10 indoor-tanning sessions in 2 weeks can suppress a person's cancer-fighting immune system.
Although tanning beds use UVA light, the concentration of UVA rays from a tanning bed is greater than that from the sun. And despite manufacturer claims, some tanning lamps do also emit UVB light. So if you try indoor tanning, you'll absorb far more rays in the long run, significantly age your skin, and put yourself at even greater risk for skin cancer.
What Tanning Salons Don't Tell You
A 2002 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that users of tanning beds and lamps had substantially increased risks of basal and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of skin cancer.
And don't expect tanning salon employees to warn you about the perils of using their facilities. Despite federal guidelines on how much exposure people should have to tanning equipment, most of the tanning parlors in a 2005 survey said customers could come in as often as they wanted. And more than a third of the tanning salons denied that indoor tanning can cause skin cancer or prematurely age the skin.
How can they get away with statements that aren't true? Tanning salons are a $2 billion industry in the United States and they want your business. Additionally, not all states regulate tanning equipment, and the federal government is still working out guidelines. So there are no structures in place to govern how salons are operated — including how well they maintain their equipment.
Minimizing Your Risk
People who have tanned in the past already have skin damage — even if they can't see it yet — and need to be very cautious about additional UV exposure. Like everyone else, they should wear sunscreen or sun-protective clothing (or both) while outdoors, and a dermatologist should check their skin periodically for suspicious moles or other lesions.
But you don't have to go without that sun-bronzed look. The new generation of self-tanners and spray-on tans offer easy, realistic results at a reasonable price. Just be sure to use a daily sunblock with an SPF of at least 15 when you go outdoors since fake tanners don't protect you against sunburn!
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: June 2009
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2016 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.