The Dangers of Tanning Beds

There is nothing healthy about the “glow” of tanned skin. Tanned skin is damaged skin, no matter your age or skin type. Even if you avoid a sunburn by getting a “base tan,” you’re still doing damage to your skin and increasing your chances of skin cancer.

Still, many people seek out a seasonal tan or year-round tan despite these dangers, often choosing indoor tanning to maintain their color through the winter. The evidence surrounding the hazards of tanning beds could not be clearer: People who use tanning beds are at much greater risk for developing skin cancer. In fact, some reports estimate that the risk increases by 75% for people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35.

Despite the best efforts of doctors to counsel against using tanning beds and sun lamps, two myths still exist:

  • Myth 1: Indoor tanning is safer than outdoor tanning.
  • Myth 2: Indoor tanning is a safe source for vitamin D.

There is absolutely no evidence to support either of these claims. In fact, research indicates that the unwavering intensity of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning beds makes it more dangerous. Ultraviolet radiation consists of UVA and UVB rays, which both damage skin and can cause skin cancer. Indoor tanning beds expose you to both kinds of rays.

Still, there are tanning salon salespeople who have built an industry on these myths. This has prompted some states to pass laws regulating indoor tanning in an attempt to protect young people. White, non-Hispanic teenaged girls use tanning beds more than any other group.

With California leading the way, 13 states — and counting — have banned indoor tanning by people younger than 18 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other states allow it only with parental permission. In total, 44 states currently have some sort of restrictions on indoor tanning.

In 2009, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified UV tanning beds as Class 1 human carcinogens. Class 1 is the highest risk category. Before, WHO had classified tanning beds as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The Class 1 ranking takes the “probably” out of the statement, leaving “carcinogenic to humans.”

Path to improved health

People of all ages should avoid indoor tanning. If you like the look of tanned skin, choose a self-tanning product that contains the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This active ingredient has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is safe to use. You can find self-tanning products in the form of lotions, foams, wipes, and sprays. Most are fast-acting and will give your skin a darker appearance in a matter of a few hours. This “tan” will last about a week.

Do not use indoor tanning as your source for vitamin D. You can get vitamins from a variety of food sources and dietary supplements. Foods that are rich in vitamin D include fish (especially fatty fish), orange juice, milk, and some other dairy products. Many cereals are also fortified with vitamin D.

Don’t swap tanning indoors for tanning outdoors. While this article focuses on the dangers of indoor tanning, it’s not safe to tan outdoors, either. If you are going to be in the sun, wear protective clothing. Put on sunscreen every day, even on days when it is cloudy.

Things to consider

Indoor tanning degrades your life in a number of ways. It is associated with:

  • Skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma
  • Cancer of the eye (ocular melanoma)
  • Cataracts and other potentially blinding eye diseases
  • Premature aging
  • Immune system suppression

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 90% of melanomas (the worst form of skin cancer) are estimated to be caused by UV exposure. Melanoma is responsible for the most skin-cancer-related deaths. It is also one of the most common types of cancer among U.S. adolescents and young adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

When to see a doctor

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. The earlier you spot it, the easier it is to cure. Warning signs include:

  • A mole or any brown spot that changes in color, texture, or size over time
  • Moles or spots that appear after adolescence
  • Skin growths that are colored (black or brown) or that are translucent and increase in size
  • Any skin growth or mole that itches, crusts, or bleeds
  • Any skin growth or mole that hurts

Questions for your doctor

  • I have used tanning beds in the past. Is there any way I can reduce my risk for skin cancer now?
  • Can I reverse the damage caused by UV exposure?
  • Can genetics make me less at risk for skin cancer?
  • Does a family history of skin cancer put me more at risk?
  • How often should I do a self-check for skin cancer?
  • I have naturally dark skin. Am I still at risk for sun damage and skin cancer?
  • What should I do if I suspect a spot on my skin could be cancerous?
  • What is the treatment process for skin cancer?


Skin Cancer Foundation