The Truth about Indoor Tanning

Risk of melanoma increases 75 percent in some who are exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning.

open indoor tanning bed

The thought of putting on a bathing suit or shorts for the first time this spring can send some people into a panic. It’s not because they’re out of shape. Instead, this panic comes from the fear of having to bare pale skin that hasn’t seen the sun in months.

Many will lie out in the sun, head to the tanning booth or to drugstores across the city, looking for the latest in tanning products, this tanning obsession could lead to serious problems.

The truth about tanning beds

You’ve heard the claims: “Unlike the sun, indoor tanning will not cause skin cancer or skin aging,” or “Tanning will not lead to harmful side effects.” But is this really true?

“This is not true,” says Elizabeth Miller, M.D., a dermatologist with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic (ADC). “The million or so people who use a tanning bed each day are putting themselves at risk for skin cancer, premature skin aging and  local  immune system suppression.”

When tanning beds were first introduced to the market, they emitted only UVB rays, which are responsible for the actual burning of the skin. As more of the public became aware of this, the industry began redesigning the beds to emit only UVA rays.  Moreover, while this does not directly cause burning, UVA rays have been linked to the deeper skin damage that results in malignant melanoma , skin aging,  and immune system suppression.  Recently, the World Health Organization declared indoor tanning devices to be cancer-causing agents that are in the same risk category as tobacco.

Teen tanning

Even more troubling is the number of teenagers who expose their young skin to this radiation.

“More than 2 million teens visit tanning beds each year,” says Dr. Miller. “ Studies have shown a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those people who were exposed to UV radiation from an indoor tanning device before the age of 35.

“Because most skin cancers don’t appear until after the age of 50, it can be easy to believe that a tan or a little sunburn isn’t harming your skin,” explains Dr. Miller. “In reality, that tan or that sunburn is the first sign of potential problems.”  Blistering sunburns in childhood are one of the risk factors for melanoma later in life. Cumulative sun exposure in the form of a tan can also lead to a variety of skin cancers.

Sunless tanning options

If tanning beds are dangerous, can sunless tanning products also be harmful to your health?

“These products are relatively safe,” explains Dr. Miller. “But it’s a good idea to test them out on a small patch of skin before you try a widespread application.”

Self-tanning products come in a variety of forms, including sprays, gels, mousses and mists. The tan will fade so you might have to reapply the tanner every few days.

“Exposing your skin to the sun or indoor tanning beds can increase your risk of developing skin cancer,” says Dr. Miller. “But this doesn’t mean you need to stay inside forever—it just means making smart choices when you’re out in the sun, like wearing sunscreen  with a  SPF of  30  or higher, wearing a hat , limiting sun exposure between 10am and 4pm, and looking at alternatives such as sunless tanning products.”

woman applies sunscreen to back of shoulder

Smart choices

You should use an everyday moisturizer with sunscreen of a  minimum of SPF 15.

Dr. Miller recommends these SPF Everyday All Over Moisturizer’s to protect your skin. All of the below have excellent UVA/UVB protection in their sunscreen:

  • Neutrogena Healthy Defense with either Helioplex or Purescreen (for sensitive skin)
  • Elta MD UV Clear
  • Aveeno Positively Radiant
  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios