Updated August 18, 2020

Lots of people want glowing, bronze skin that comes from spending time in the sun. But that sun-kissed skin, no matter if it comes from an indoor tanning bed or outdoor tanning in the sun, can lead to serious health risks. Tanning raises the risk of skin cancer and can lead to lasting consequences. Before you set out to get a tan, read the truth about tanning and skin cancer.

Are tanning beds safer than the sun?

Are Tanning Beds Safer Than the Sun?

One of the most common questions dermatologists answer is about the safety of tanning beds. Dermatologist Colleen Andrijiw, PA-C, shared the following information to provide an expert answer to the question. 

Most skin cancers are caused by harmful UV radiation, which we encounter from the sun or when tanning indoors using a tanning bed. There are two types of UV radiation that can reach the skin: UVA and UVB. Understanding the differences between them will explain why a tanning bed is not safer than the sun. 

Sunlamps in tanning beds emit UVA radiation. UVA radiation causes the skin to darken or tan, whereas UVB causes the skin to burn. The problem is that UVA rays penetrate to deeper skin layers than UVB rays and are a major cause of cell DNA damage and mutations that lead to skin cancer, skin aging, and dark skin spots. In addition to burning the skin, UVB rays can also lead to skin cancer and aging. But since UVB rays don’t penetrate as deeply as UVA rays, they cause a bit less damage.

Does Light Intensity and Time Control Make a Difference?

Some experts argue that artificial tanning is less dangerous because the intensity of light and the time spent tanning in beds are controlled. There is limited evidence to support these claims. Tanning beds may actually be more dangerous than the sun because they can be used at the same intensity every day of the year–something that is unlikely for the sun because of winter weather and cloud cover. They can also be more dangerous because people can expose their entire bodies at each session, which would be difficult to do outdoors.

I don’t recommend it, but if you use indoor tanning equipment, follow these steps to reduce the dangers of UV exposure:

  • Wear the goggles provided. Make sure they are in good repair with no cracks. They should fit snugly (UV radiation can cause eye burns and cancer).
  • Start slowly and use short exposure times to build up a tan over time. Using the maximum exposure on the first visit can lead to a burn and an increased risk of melanoma.
  • Follow manufacturer-recommended exposure times on the label for your skin type.
  • Stick to your time limit.
  • After a tan is developed, tan no more than once a week.
  • Know that even ONE tanning bed session before the age of 35 DOUBLES your risk for developing melanoma, a skin cancer that can be deadly.

-Colleen Andrijiw, PA-C

Clearly, there is great risk involved with tanning beds. Many people also wonder if tanning beds cause cancer and have lasting effects.

Tanning Beds Can Cause Skin Cancer

You aren’t the first one to wonder: can tanning beds cause skin cancer? The potentially harmful effects of excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays have long been attributed as a cause of skin cancer. With both men and women obsessing overachieving that deep golden tan, the risk of skin cancer is continually present and continually growing. Board-certified dermatologists such as Front Range Dermatology Associates can perform procedures such as Mohs Surgery in Greeley that have been developed to help combat skin cancer. However, behaviors that increase the risk of melanoma or other cancers should be avoided at all costs.

Many people believe that indoor tanning protects them because they aren’t outside in the direct line of UV rays, but the truth is that indoor tanning beds are just as dangerous. Tanning beds, tanning booths, and even sunlamps still expose the skin to UV rays and can still damage the skin in several ways. Regardless of where they initiate, UV rays are a leading cause of skin cancer.

What Is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is a disease caused by the uncontrollable growth of abnormal skin cells. These abnormal skin cells are most often caused by DNA damage from ultraviolet radiation. This damage can lead to mutations, defects or even tumors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with the majority of cases caused by overexposure to UV rays. There are three major types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinomas, basal cell carcinomas, and melanomas. Basal cell and squamous cell are more common, but melanomas are by far the most serious. All types of skin cancer, if left untreated, can spread to other parts of the body.

inside a tanning bed

The Truth About Tanning and Skin Cancer

According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, almost 90% of melanomas are caused by exposure to UV rays, whether from the sun or indoor tanning beds. The damage caused to skin cells by UV rays accumulates over time and increases the risk of harmful skin conditions, wrinkles, and skin cancer. Studies have shown that even just one bad sunburn can increase the possibility of developing skin cancer or melanoma later. Tanning damages skin cells regardless of how quickly it happens or to what extent. Even a base tan can lead to skin cancer, simply from the compounded damage done to the cells.

Extensive and continual research on the topic of tanning has shown the danger of chasing a golden-brown skin tone. A tan is how the skin responds when skin cells are damaged, and the more a person tans, the greater the risk of getting skin cancer.

The Myth That Indoor Tanning is Safer

Indoor tanning, especially when done in excess and on a regular basis, is no less dangerous than laying out in the direct sunlight. Research has also linked indoor tanning to long-term skin damage and skin cancers. As previously mentioned, a tan causes damage to the skin’s cells regardless of how it is achieved resulting in premature skin aging, including wrinkles, or cancer.

While the tanning industry claims that tanning beds are beneficial because of vitamin D, the truth is that tanning beds emit UVA radiation, rather than the UVB radiation needed to produce vitamin D. Excessive amounts of the most dangerous UV rays will mutate the DNA in skin cells and run a high risk of leading to skin cancer.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified tanning beds and tanning lamps in the category for the highest cancer risk. The dangers of indoor tanning, particularly in people under the age of 18, have been found to be so dangerous that many states have decided to ban the use of tanning beds by minors. Research has shown that people who use tanning beds before the age of 30 increase their risk of melanoma by 75%. Those with even the occasional sessions in tanning beds can triple their risk, and even just a single use can lead to an increased risk.

Protect Yourself from Skin Cancer

People diagnosed with skin cancer can often be treated successfully. However, it’s far better to take preventative measures that will help you avoid needing treatment at all. The most effective way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to avoid tanning beds and excessive sun exposure and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.