Risks Of Indoor Tanning

Outdoor sun exposure is a proven contributing factor in all types of skin cancer. Some individuals choose to use indoor tanning beds, booths or lamps to darken the color of their skin. However, indoor tanning risks are significant as well, and these devices can be just as dangerous as natural sunlight.

How Do Tanning Beds Work?

Tanning beds and indoor sunlamps are equipped with bulbs that emit primarily UVA rays, designed to increase the skin’s production of the pigment melanin. This is why the results of indoor tanning usually include more tanning (caused by UVA exposure) than burning (caused primarily by UVB exposure). Along with increased melanin production and increased cancer risk, using tanning beds can lead to:

  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Premature skin aging
  • Wrinkling and loss of skin elasticity.

The Myth of the Tanning Bed Base Tan

Many people, even those who do not visit a tanning salon regularly, may log a few sessions in a tanning bed before a vacation, or before the summer season. Some people believe that a base tan from a tanning salon will protect their skin from sunburn due to later sun exposure.

This belief may be based on the fact that people with dark skin (and more melanin) burn less easily. However, if you begin with light skin, any change in color, whether it is tanning or a sunburn, is indicative of damage to the skin. Thus, a base tan from a tanning salon is really an attempt to prevent damage with damage.

Tanning Salons Substitute One Type of Damage for Another

Rather than being safer than natural sunlight, tanning salons can be just as dangerous (or more so). Individuals who visit tanning salons use no skin protection, and some even use products designed to accelerate tanning, which only serve to accelerate damage. The skin can experience cumulative damage from a combination of natural sunlight and tanning beds. Tanning beds now join cigarette smoke and asbestos in the World Health Organization’s highest cancer-risk category: “carcinogenic to humans.”

Rise in Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers

A rise in cases of melanoma in young Caucasian women has been identified by Purdue et al. in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (2008), while cases in young men have remained more constant. Indoor tanning may be responsible in part for a rise in skin cancer in young women, particularly because they tend to be more frequent users of tanning salons. However, other factors, such as increased natural sunlight exposure or increased diagnosis rates, may also contribute. State lawmakers have attempted to pass legislation to limit the use of tanning salons by individuals under the age of eighteen, and even tax the use of tanning salons.

Self-Tanners vs. Tanning Beds

Self-tanners work by staining the surface of the epidermis via a chemical reaction. Self-tanners with the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA) have been deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If you choose to use a self tanner, remember that they do not provide sun protection. While some self tanners may contain sunscreen, not all do. Do not assume a self-tanner contains sunscreen unless it is explicitly stated on the label.


American Cancer Society. (2010). Skin protection and early detection. Retrieved July 5, 2010, from http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003184-pdf.pdf

Mayo Clinic. (2009). Sunburn. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sunburn/DS00964

National Cancer Institute. (2004). NCI health information tip sheet for writers: artificial tanning booths and cancer. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from National Cancer Institute Website: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/tip-sheet-tanning-booths

Park, A. (2009). Assessing the risks of tanning beds. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1914188,00.html

Purdue, M., Freeman, L., Anderson, W., & Tucker, M. (2008). Recent trends in incidence of cutaneous melanoma among US caucasian young adults. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 128; 2905-2908.

Rovner, J. (2010). Tanning salons burned by new health law. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128213548

Vitello, P. (2006). Skin cancer is up; tanning industry a target. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/14/nyregion/14tanning.html?pagewanted=1