Myths & facts about tanning beds

Despite overwhelming evidence of their carcinogenicity, tanning beds remain popular, particularly among young people.  The American Academy of Dermatology, the Canadian Dermatology Association, and skin cancer advocacy groups such as the Skin Cancer Foundation have long been advocating for restrictions on tanning beds.  In Canada, most provinces have introduced legislation over the past few years banning the use of tanning beds in minors.  Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in terms of educating the public about the dangers of indoor tanning.

Tanning beds emit carcinogenic ultraviolet radiation that causes skin cancer and skin aging.  I've had patients tell me they "feel better with a tan", that they look "healthier" when tanned, and that they are using tanning beds in order to generate vitamin D.  Tanning salons promote these falsehoods, and their industry would have you believe that tanning is not only safe, but that it has health benefits, including providing users with a "base tan" so they don't burn on vacation or in the summer.  None of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

Myth #1: Indoor tanning is safer than the sun

Like the sun, tanning beds emit ultraviolet radiation, which has been classified as a Group 1 Carcinogen by the World Health Organization.  That means there is irrefutable scientific evidence that this type of radiation causes cancer in humans.  The amount of radiation given off by tanning beds is similar to the amount received from the sun, and in some cases it is stronger. 

Both indoor and outdoor tanning cause skin cancer. Numerous scientific studies have found a link between indoor tanning and melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer). Two meta-analyses (research studies that review many other studies), published in 2012 and 2014, have confirmed this link. Research has shown that using tanning beds only once can increase your risk of developing melanoma by 20%, and studies have shown that risk increases the more one tans each year. 

Using tanning beds early in life may be especially damaging. One study found that people who first used a tanning bed before age 35 increased their risk of melanoma by 75%, and many experts feel that part of the enormous increase in melanoma diagnoses in young women over the past 40 years may be due to tanning bed use. 

In addition to melanoma, tanning bed users increase their risk of non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as premature skin aging and eye diseases such as cataracts.  Tanning can make you look old before your time, can damage your eyesight, and can increase your risk of dying from skin cancer.

Myth #2: A base tan will protect me from a sunburn later on

There is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is the body's attempt to protect itself from harmful UV rays, and any tan is evidence of damage to the skin's cells.  A "base tan" provides an estimated SPF of 4 or less and does little to protect you from a future sunburn.  In fact, research has shown that people who indoor tan are more likely to report getting sunburned later on.

Myth #3: Indoor tanning will provide me with vitamin D

Most tanning beds emit primarily ultraviolet A (UVA) with small amounts of ultraviolet B (UVB).  Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin exclusively in the presence of UVB, not UVA. In other words, the UVA emitted by most sunlamps does not lead to vitamin D synthesis in the skin.

More importantly, there are much safer ways to obtain vitamin D than to expose oneself to excessive ultraviolet radiation. Vitamin D can be readily and inexpensively obtained from food sources or supplements.

Exposing yourself to a known carcinogen for a few weeks of bronzed skin doesn't make sense when you consider the increased risks of skin cancer and skin aging.  Avoid the tanning salon and celebrate the skin you were born with.  If you prefer a bronzed look, opt for a self-tanner; your skin will thank you.


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Michelle Levy

Dr. Michelle Levy is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical and aesthetic dermatology. A graduate of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Levy provides a full spectrum of dermatologic services in Toronto, Canada. Education: M.D., University of Toronto, 1999 Residency in Dermatology, University of Toronto, 1999-2004 Employment History: Self-employed, North York, Ontario, 2005-Present Medcan. Consultant Dermatologist. 2007-Present