Summer is quickly approaching, and odds are you’re breaking out your swimsuits and shorts for the first time. The first thing most people notice when they break out their summer clothes is that their skin is much lighter than it was when they packed those same clothes away months earlier.
Unfortunately, many people turn to tanning beds or even their own backyards to get a “base tan” before they officially kick off their summer activities. But is a base tan legitimate? And are you better off going to a tanning bed, laying outside, getting a spray tan or doing nothing at all? Here’s The Skinny on tanning.
No matter what you’ve heard, there is no such thing as a “safe” tanning bed. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services both list tanning beds as a “known human carcinogen,” right up there with cigarettes.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology:
- On an average day in the United States, more than 1 million people tan in tanning salons.
- 35 percent of American adults, 59 percent of college students and 17 percent of teens have reported using a tanning bed in their lifetime.
- Nearly 70 percent of tanning salon patrons are Caucasian girls and women, primarily aged 16 to 29 years.
- Nearly 30 million people tan indoors in the United States annually. Of these, 2.3 million are teens.
- In a 2014 study, 13 percent of American adults, 43 percent of college students and 10 percent of teens admitted to using a tanning bed in the past year.
- In 2010, the indoor tanning industry’s revenue was estimated to be $2.6 billion.
- Indoor tanning equipment - which includes all artificial light sources, including beds, lamps, bulbs, booths, etc. -- emits UVA and UVB radiation. The amount of the radiation produced during indoor tanning is similar to the sun, and in some cases might be stronger.
- Studies have found a 59 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning, and the risk increases with each use.
- A recent study estimates that exposure to indoor tanning devices causes more than 450,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 10,000 melanoma cases each year in the United States, Europe and Australia.
- Studies have demonstrated that exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning damages the DNA in the skin cells. Excessive exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning can lead to premature skin aging, immune suppression and eye damage, including cataracts and ocular melanoma.
- In a survey of adolescent tanning bed users, it was found that about 58 percent had burns due to frequent exposure to indoor tanning beds/lamps.
- The FDA estimates that there are about 3,000 hospital emergency room cases a year due to indoor tanning bed and lamp exposure.
But what about Vitamin D?
Some people claim that indoor tanning can be beneficial in providing much-needed Vitamin D to the skin. While Vitamin D is important, indoor tanning beds should not be used to obtain vitamin D because UV radiation from indoor tanning is a risk factor for skin cancer. Vitamin D can be obtained by a eating a healthy diet and by taking oral supplements. Additionally, most people can get adequate amounts of Vitamin D just by walking outside for a few minutes per day.
Aren’t there some safe tanning beds that don’t emit UVA rays?
While some tanning beds do eliminate the UVA rays and only emit UVB, they are still dangerous. According to the FDA, UVB rays are most often associated with sunburns on the skin’s surface, while UVA rays can cause damage further below the surface. But exposure to any UV rays can cause skin cancer and damage to the skin.
I’ve heard claims that tanning outside is safer than tanning inside because it’s “natural.” That’s false. The danger in tanning at all is the UV rays. Tanning beds tend to work “faster” than just laying outside because they have a higher concentration of UV rays, but any contact with UV rays is damaging.
Every time your skin changes – whether it burns or tans – it’s a sign of damage. Too much sun exposure can cause skin cancer, but it can also cause signs of aging, like wrinkles. If you’re outside for any extended period of time, you should wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30 to protect yourself.
If you really want to add some color to your skin, spray tanning is the way to go. Spray tans contain a color additive called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which temporarily darkens the skin. Spray tans typically last seven to 10 days, or until the skin naturally sloughs off.
There has been a question about the safety of DHA, as prolonged exposure to the chemical or ingestion through the nose or mouth can be harmful. Still, if the products are used as directed, they are not dangerous. People working with spray tans or getting one should ensure they protect their eyes, nose, mouth and mucous membranes.
Even with the minimal risk posed by DHA, spray tanning is by far the safest option to achieve that brown glow.
Doing Nothing At All
Love your skin the way it is! People who avoid tanning altogether and who faithfully wear sunscreen every day will age more gracefully than people who tan or don’t protect their skin.