Tanning Beds - More Dangerous than Sunlight?

Medical Author: Melissa Stöppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

Many people today still want a tan despite the fact that sun exposure is known to be associated with skin cancer and premature ageing of the skin. A tan is often seen as cosmetically attractive and as an outward sign of good health.

A tan is actually a sign of skin damage. Skin cells that have been damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation produce more of the pigment melanin and that is what produces the tan.

Many people think that tanning booths and beds are safe alternatives to acquiring a tan "naturally" outdoors. This is based on the erroneous belief that tanning indoors does not damage the skin. This false sense of security has encouraged the frequent use of tanning booths and beds.

In fact, they may be even more dangerous. Natural sunlight contains a mixture of both short-wave UV-B and longer wave UV-A rays. Both UV-A and UV-B exposures can lead to premature ageing of the skin, and both increase a person's risk of developing skin cancer, including malignant melanoma. The difference is that UV-B rays cause more rapid tanning and burning while UV-A rays do not cause burning until exposure levels are very high.

Indoor tanning booths and beds most commonly use ultraviolet bulbs that emit predominantly UV-A rays. Unfortunately, UV-A rays penetrate more deeply into the skin and can even adversely affect the cells involved in the body's immune response in addition to raising an individual's risk of developing malignant melanoma and other cancers of the skin.

In conclusion, there is no scientific evidence that the use of tanning beds and booths is any less damaging or harmful than exposure to outdoor sunlight. To the contrary, the evidence suggests that indoor tanning may be even more damaging and dangerous, especially because some people become addicted to maintaining a deep, dark tan irrespective of the season.

Reference: "Sunbeds, tanning and UV exposure". World Health Organization (WHO) Fact Sheet No. 287, March 2005.

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