Exposure to UV radiation—whether from the sun or from artificial sources such as sunlamps used in tanning beds—increases the risk of developing skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is linked to getting severe sunburns, especially at a young age.
“Although some people think that a tan gives them a ‘healthy’ glow, any tan is a sign of skin damage,” says Sharon Miller, M.S.E.E., a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist and international expert on UV radiation and tanning.
“A tan is the skin’s reaction to exposure to UV rays,” says Miller. “Recognizing exposure to the rays as an ‘insult,’ the skin acts in self-defense by producing more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin. Over time, this damage will lead to prematurely aged skin and, in some cases, skin cancer.”
Indoor tanning is not a safe option
Both UV-B and UV-A rays damage the skin and can lead to skin cancer. Tanning salons use lamps that emit both UV-A and UV-B radiation.
In July 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, concluded that tanning devices that emit UV radiation are more dangerous than previously thought. IARC moved these devices into the highest cancer risk category: “carcinogenic to humans.” Previously, it had categorized the devices as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
IARC concluded that there is convincing evidence of an association between the use of indoor tanning equipment and melanoma risk, and that the use of tanning beds should be discouraged.
“It’s well established that UV radiation from the sun causes skin cancer,” says Miller. “Since lamps used in tanning beds emit UV radiation, the use of indoor tanning devices also increases your risk of skin cancer.”
In addition to the serious risk of skin cancer, tanning can cause:
- Premature aging. Tanning causes the skin to lose elasticity and wrinkle prematurely. This leathery look may not show up until many years after you’ve had a tan or sunburn.
- Immune suppression. UV-B radiation may suppress proper functioning of the body’s immune system and the skin’s natural defenses, leaving you more vulnerable to diseases, including skin cancer.
- Eye damage. Exposure to UV radiation can cause irreversible damage to the eyes.
- Allergic reaction. Some people who are especially sensitive to UV radiation may develop an itchy red rash and other adverse effects.
Advocates of tanning devices sometimes argue that using these devices are less dangerous than sun tanning because the intensity of UV radiation and the time spent tanning can be controlled. But there is no evidence to support these claims. In fact, sunlamps may be more dangerous than the sun because they can be used at the same high intensity every day of the year—unlike the sun whose intensity varies with the time of day, the season, and cloud cover.
Tanning in Children and Teens
The FDA believes that limiting sun exposure and using sunscreen or sunblock are particularly important for children since these measures can prevent sunburn at a young age.
NCI reports that women who use tanning beds more than once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop melanoma. Teenage girls and young women make up a growing number of tanning bed customers.
“Young people may not think they are vulnerable to skin cancer,” says Ron Kaczmarek, M.D., M.P.H., FDA epidemiologist. “They have difficulty thinking about their own mortality.”
Yet of the more than 68,000 people in the U.S. who will learn they have melanoma this year, one out of eight will die from it, according to NCI estimates. In addition, the American Academy of Dermatology reports that melanoma is the second most common cancer in women 20 to 29 years old.
Some states are considering laws to ban those under age 18 from using tanning beds. And many states now have laws that require minors to have a parent’s consent or be accompanied by a parent to the tanning facility.
“Parents should carefully consider the risks before allowing their children under 18 to tan,” says Miller.
The Riskiest Practices
The FDA, NCI, the American Academy of Dermatology, and other health organizations advise limiting exposure to natural UV radiation from the sun and avoiding artificial UV sources such as tanning beds entirely.
All use of tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer. Certain practices are especially dangerous. These include:
- Failing to wear the goggles provided, which can lead to short- and long-term eye injury.
- Starting with long exposures (close to the maximum time for the particular tanning bed), which can lead to burning. Because sunburn takes 6 to 48 hours to develop, you may not realize your skin is burned until it’s too late.
- Failing to follow manufacturer-recommended exposure times on the label for your skin type.
- Tanning while using certain medications or cosmetics that may make you more sensitive to UV rays. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist first.