Americans Are Still Tanning Indoors—Here’s Why It’s So Bad for Your Health

A whopping 7.8 million women and 1.9 million men are putting themselves at risk for cancer.

Woman using indoor tanning bed

In the summer, many people love basking in the sun and soaking up some rays, but to get that sun-kissed glow during the cooler months, some are still choosing to lay in a tanning bed. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), 7.8 million women and 1.9 million men tan indoors. But is indoor tanning really that bad for you—and is it worse than outdoor sun exposure?

What is indoor tanning and how does it work?

Indoor tanners utilize either a bed or booth, but both methods produce similar results. Sun lamps located inside these booths and beds produce ultra-violet (UV) light, either in the form of UVA or UVB rays. UVA rays tend to penetrate the skin deeper than UVB rays, but both are responsible for wrinkles, premature skin aging and even various types of skin cancer. If you’ve tanned indoors, the light your skin was exposed to is primarily UVA. It’s these two forms of UV light that give tanners their color.

Indoor tanning salons line many strip malls, but according to a research letter by The Journal of the American Medical Association, almost 30 percent of indoor tanners do so at the gym, which is considered “a concerning trend.”

How dangerous is indoor tanning, really?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no such thing as a safe tan. Although many people believe a “base tan” protects the skin from further damage, this is a misconception. The darkening tone of your skin, due to exposure from UV light in a tanning bed or UV radiation from the sun, is a result of your body trying to protect itself by producing extra melanin. That tan itself is visible proof of skin damage.

The AAD makes it clear that indoor tanning is by no means “safer” than tanning from the sun. In fact, just one instance of tanning indoors can increase a person’s risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 20 percent. But that’s not all: indoor tanning can increase your risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent and basal cell carcinoma by 29 percent, too.

Indoor tanning is not a safe way to get vitamin D, either. According to the CDC, the safest way to get enough of the vitamin is actually through the food you eat. Fatty fish like salmon, milk, cheese and other foods fortified with the vitamin are good choices.

What are the specific risks of indoor tanning?

Lying or standing in an enclosed space while being exposed to ultra-violet radiation is never safe. In fact, many states have various laws which aim to protect minors from these harmful rays. Why? Indoor tanning is dangerous and is associated with a number of health risks.

Cancer: Both the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer have affirmed that tanning beds are a known carcinogen, a cancer-causing agent. However, any type of tanning damages your skin and increases the chances of skin cancer.

UV radiation can damage your skin cells’ DNA, which sometimes causes the skin to develop abnormally, leading to both benign and malignant growths. Studies show that indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in America every year.

Premature aging: You’re more likely to develop premature signs of aging, including wrinkles, dark spots and leathery skin that has lost its firmness, due to indoor tanning.

Eye damage: Indoor tanning is also known to cause eye damage in the form of cataracts, ocular melanoma and macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Certain types of tanning lamps can also cause photokeratitis, which is often described as a “sunburn” of the cornea.

Immunity issues: Immune suppression, or the weakening of the body’s defenses, can be caused by overexposure to UV light. It may increase a person’s sensitivity to natural sunlight, decrease the effects of getting immunizations and even cause the body to react differently to medication.

Addiction: Another risk of tanning comes in the form of addiction. According to the AAD, more than 20 percent of 18- to 30-year old white women display signs of addiction, finding it difficult to stop the habit and even get fidgety or depressed when they don’t have a constant source of UV rays.  

Other injuries and mishaps: Even the tanning beds themselves aren’t always safe. It’s estimated that between 2003 and 2012, over 3,200 injuries related to indoor tanning were treated in US hospitals each year. This includes burns and fainting.

Indoor tanning salons often give customers incorrect information about the dangers of the activity. According to a 2012 study by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, about 90 percent of the tanning salons investigated said that indoor tanning does not pose any health risks and 78 percent of these salons claimed indoor tanning methods would benefit their health.

Are there any safe ways to get that sun-kissed glow? 

For those who are insistent on looking tan, try self-tanner, a topical solution that comes in the form of lotions, creams and even sprays. To use, exfoliate your skin with a cloth, make sure it’s completely dry, then apply the lotion in sections with circular movements. Make sure you’re completely dry before getting dressed.

However, keep in mind that self-tanners do not protect you from the sun. The AAD recommends individuals still use an SPF of 30 or higher while outside, with broad spectrum protection that is water-resistant. If outside for extended periods of time, the Skin Cancer Foundation suggests reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours, especially if you are sweating or swimming. Aim for about a shot glass full of sunscreen to use on your entire body.

So, how can you protect yourself from skin damage?

If you tan indoors, the best thing to do is to quit immediately. And if you’ve never tanned, don’t start—this simple avoidance can prolong your life. If states were to impose a restriction to tanning for those under 18 years of age, as the CDC suggests, more than 61,000 melanomas and over 6,700 deaths from melanoma could be prevented.

Besides ditching tanning beds and consistently wearing sunscreen, the Skin Cancer Foundation has a few more recommendations to prevent skin cancer and premature aging:

  • Limiting sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Avoiding sunburns
  • Wearing clothing to protect your face, like a hat with a wide brim and sunglasses
  • Getting a skin exam from a dermatologist every year

People are beginning to understand the harm of tanning salons. According to the latest 2018 Skin Cancer Prevention Progress Report from the CDC, the numbers of adults and high school students using indoor tanning salons has decreased, which is good news for skin cancer prevention efforts. The Skin Cancer Foundation also encourages everyone to feel happy and confident in their natural skin and discourages individuals from associating “beauty” with tanning.

So, lather up your skin in sunscreen, be mindful of the sun’s rays, stay away from all forms of indoor tanning and most importantly, love your skin—tan or not.

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