Tanning Beds: How Safe Are They Really?

Spring break is coming up soon, and a lot of people are turning to tanning beds to “pre-tan” before they head to more tropical locations with lots of sun. (Perhaps before going, they should also take a look at our Sun Safety Guide!)

Most people accept the science behind the link between smoking and lung cancer, which is why fewer people are smoking today than they were even just a few decades ago. Yet when it comes to skin cancer, many people are still unconcerned, even though tanning is more closely linked to skin cancer than smoking is to lung cancer. Some even believe that indoor tanning is a “safe” way to tan. They couldn’t be more wrong!

How Indoor Tanning Causes Cancer

Like sun exposure, tanning beds damage the DNA in your cells with ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This actually changes (mutates) the DNA, and these changes can turn cancerous, especially when done over and over many times. How often does this happen? In the past thirty years, more people developed skin cancer than all other types of cancer combined. According to PBS, skin cancer caused by tanning beds costs the U.S. nearly $350 million per year. And the CDC says “tanning beds are not safe!”

Of course, not all skin cancers are melanoma, the most deadly form. The most common forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, both of which are less likely to spread than melanoma. Nonetheless, just because you are less likely to die from these forms of cancer, that is no reason to tempt nature. The best thing to do is to avoid it altogether, as much as possible.

Don’t Buy the Tanning Myths

The indoor tanning industry is worth nearly $5 billion per year, and they spend a substantial sum of money spreading misinformation about the “benefits” of their tanning beds. They even go as far as creating websites about the benefits of “sunlight” with quotes by medical professionals to help them sell and promote their cancer causing products. Some even claim that artificial tanning is safer because you’re getting a controlled dose of radiation. However, these are dangerous claims, and according to research the opposite may actually be true.

Ultraviolet (UV) exposure is bad, period. Your skin doesn’t care whether it’s natural or artificial. You’ll still get the wrinkles and skin cancer, and possibly damage your eyes and immune system, as well. When it comes using indoor tanning beds before age 35 means, you’re 75% more likely to develop melanoma than individuals who do not use them.

The tanning bed industry is also guilty of another marketing myth, the idea that their devices are the best way to get Vitamin D. The Skin Cancer Foundation and The American Cancer Society disagree. Both organizations have stated that it’s much healthier to get Vitamin D through your diet, and that the risks of developing cancer from tanning beds clearly outweigh any alleged benefit from Vitamin D.

One other popular lie is that a “base tan” will protect you from sunburns and skin damage. This is completely wrong. Your “base tan” will give you very little, if any, protection from further damage. The one thing you have to understand and accept is that there’s really no such thing as a tan. It’s a burn, period. The only appropriate skin tone for you is the one you were born with.

So don’t fall for the marketing. They care about your money, not your long-term health and survival. Would you rather believe the CDC, and PBS, or shady “sunlight and UV benefit” websites that are funded by the tanning bed industry.

Millennial Tanners Beware!

So why, with this mountain of evidence, is the tanning industry still in business? One obvious explanation is the average age of their customers. Young people are more likely to visit indoor tanning beds, and they often suffer from “bulletproof syndrome.” They just can’t believe it – in this case, cancer – could ever happen to them.

There’s even biological evidence for the “bulletproof syndrome.” The connections between the brain’s frontal lobe and the rest of the brain don’t peak until around age 35. The frontal lobes control decision-making, and allow us to make those decisions based on possible consequences rather than simply living in the present moment. So young adults are naturally vulnerable to risky decisions, based on dangerous beauty ideals and immature brain development.

If young people really are less able to resist risky behavior, like excessive sun or tanning bed exposure, should the industry be more heavily regulated? Currently, tanning beds are illegal for anyone under 18 in the following states:

States that Ban Indoor Tanning for Minors
  • California
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Protect Yourself and Your Friends

Protecting yourself from tanning beds is easy. Just don’t do it. But what about your family and friends? Preaching to someone about lifestyle choices is always a risk, and yes, there’s a possibility of awkwardness, hurt feelings, and resentment.

Do it anyway – at least, inform them (but don’t actually preach at them). Let your friends know that you care about them. Tell them you’ve heard about how dangerous tanning beds are. Tell them that the marketing and ads are dishonest, and have been proven wrong by people who’ve devoted their careers to studying skin cancer.

Finally, talk back to those dangerous beauty ideals, for yourself, your family, and your friends. Whether you’re ivory, peachy, golden, or ebony, the best skin tone for you is the one you were born with. Say no to tanning beds, and “embrace the skin you’re in.”