Are tanning beds safe? That depends on who you ask. Don’t expect employees at a tanning salon to warn you about the dangers of tanning. Even with federal guidelines on how much exposure people should have in a tanning booth, most tanning parlors said customers could come in as often as they wanted. And some even denied that tanning indoors could cause cancer or prematurely age the skin.
But according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, people who use tanning beds and lamps have a considerably higher risk of developing basal and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common kinds of skin cancer. A report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, concluded that there is an association between tanning devices that emit ultraviolet (UV) rays and cancer of the eye, and that the risk for melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, increases by 75 percent when the use of tanning beds starts before the age of 35.
Tanning salons use lamps that emit both UVA radiation, which penetrates to the deeper layers of the skin, and some UVB radiation, which goes through the top layers of skin. When using a tanning bed, the concentration of UVA rays is higher than that from the sun. As a result, the skin absorbs more rays in the long term resulting in both skin aging and a higher risk for skin cancer.
Both UVA and UVB rays can cause potentially cancerous changes in the DNA of skin cells. In addition to increasing the risk of skin cancer, tanning also can cause:
- Premature aging that occurs when skin loses its elasticity and wrinkles prematurely.
- Immune suppression that can leave the body more susceptible to diseases.
- Irreversible eye damage due to exposure to UV radiation.
- An allergic reaction for some people resulting in an itchy rash or other problems.
The risk of cancer increases anytime a tanning bed is used. But certain practices can lead to additional health problems. Not wearing the goggles provided can cause both short- and long-term eye injury. Starting tanning bed use with long exposures could result in sunburn (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends exposures of no more than three sessions in the first week). Not following the manufacturer-recommended exposure times for certain skin types can lead to skin damage. If you use a tanning bed while taking certain medications or cosmetics, you could increase your body’s sensitivity to UV rays.
If you have used tanning beds in the past, the damage to your skin is already done even if you can’t see it yet. In the future, you will need to be very careful about additional UV exposure. But you don’t have to go without that sun-bronzed look. New self-tanners and spray-on tans provide a quick, safe alternative that is better for your skin. Just don’t forget to use sunscreen when you go outside since these tanners do not protect against sunburn. For more information about indoor tanning, talk with your doctor or visit the FDA website at www.fda.gov.