The sun gets a bad rap for a collection of issues. Of those, cancer and premature aging are the top two issues. You can get sunburned and if you’re sensitive to the heat, suffer from heat stroke as well. For people looking to get the benefits of healthy sun-kissed tan while avoiding the harsh effects of being outdoors in the blazing sun, indoor tanning has been an attractive alternative.
But the question of safety is sometimes a topic of heated debate between avid tanners and those against indoor tanning. In this article, we’ll answer the big questions that everyone has. Is indoor tanning safe? How does tanning exactly work? Can it cause cancer, and what other risks are there from tanning?
Like many things you do, indoor tanning is not completely without risk, but with some education and awareness, you can feel assured about the steps you’re taking to minimize your risk.
How Indoor Tanning Works
Let’s start with a general overview of how tanning in the sun generally works. Tanning is the natural process of your skin color getting darker. When you go out in the sun, the UV radiation from the sun is directly responsible for your body’s tanning response. As a response to UV radiation, your body produces more melanin, which is the color responsible for giving you your tan. UV radiation comes in two main flavors, UVA and UVB, each of which have different roles in making you tan.
(image from coolasuncare.com)
UVB radiation has shorter wavelengths, meaning it has higher energy and is most directly responsible for sunburns. It’s easily blocked by the earth’s atmosphere, sunblock, and clothing. This is why having a good SPF sunblock works wonders at preventing you from being sunburnt.
UVA radiation, on the other hand, has longer wavelengths and is usually not directly associated with sunburn and skin damage. It helps make the melanin in your skin darker and since it goes deeper past the top layers of your skin responsible for sunburns, it can cause premature aging and damage that you don’t see immediately.
Now, when you’re indoor tanning, tanning beds produce artificial UV light to give you your tan. Artificial UV light works just like the sun with two main differences. Different tanning beds give you different levels of UVA vs UVB light. And with a tanning bed, you’re getting a consistent level of light. The UV rays you get don’t depend on the weather.
Understand the Risks
Like many things we enjoy doing everyday, indoor tanning is not a 100% safe activity. However, if you understand the risks, you can take steps to make sure you’re reducing any risks and protecting yourself however you can. Although you’re more likely to die in a car accident than from melanoma, you should never be complacent about your health. Skin cancer, the most commonly discussed and the deadliest tanning risk, is often curable if caught early and treated.
As a simple conclusion, any prolonged exposure to UV light can increase your risk for skin cancer. This isn’t to say that indoor tanning is as equally dangerous as smoking cigarettes or working in asbestos-filled homes. There are two sides to the debate and you’re likely to find strong arguments on both, especially from tanning bed salons and health professionals like dermatologists. Please don’t take this article as medical authority, and always consult a professional about your personal needs and how to keep yourself protected.
What Kinds of Skin Cancer Are There?
There are four main types of skin cancer given by the American Academy of Dermatology: actinic keratoses (AK), basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.
You have different chances of getting each type of skin cancer, and each poses different levels of danger to your health. AK is not harmful but it can evolve into SCC over time, which can cause damage to your skin and surrounding tissue, spreading to other parts of your body. BCC can also cause skin and nerve damage while spreading like SCC. These three types of cancer are the most common and the least dangerous as long as you catch them and treat them.
Melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer but it’s the deadliest. It can develop very quickly, and once it spreads to your lymph nodes, your chances for survival become much lower. If caught early, however, melanoma has a 98% survival rate.
(image from andrefriedli.ch)
Everyone needs to go to regular skin examinations to make sure any early signs of skin cancer are caught and treated early. If you engage in any sort of tanning, you doubly need to make sure that you absolutely get examined regularly. The statistics are very clear that tanning increases your risk for cancer.
Very few people contract melanoma and even fewer die from late stage melanoma. Getting regular examinations is the best way to make sure you don’t fall victim to skin cancer, whether you tan or not.
Are UVA Rays Safe?
A common argument for the use of indoor tanning beds is that many indoor tanning beds mostly expose you to UVA rays, which are less commonly associated with skin cancer. Although UVA rays do not cause direct damage to the upper layers of your skin where skin cancer is most common, research shows that UVA rays can damage the deeper layers, which can also increase your risk for cancer. Additionally, keep in mind that there are tanning beds that only produce UVB rays as well. Always stay informed about the type of tanning bed you’re using and what it’s used for.
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On the other hand, cancer research organizations and dermatologists often state that any amount of tanning is sign of damage to your skin. Although this could be true from a scientific perspective, it definitely sounds alarmist to everyday people like you and me. It’s not practical to keep yourself perpetually covered from the sun all the time, especially if you want to go outside even occasionally.
How Can You Reduce Your Risk?
The final conclusion is that you should understand that repeated exposure to UV rays definitely increases your risk for cancer, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of cancer.
(image from telegraph.co.uk)
If you must tan, being able to limit your UV exposure time and the strength of the UV rays in an indoor tanning bed can reduce the risk compared to being out in the sun for too long. Most people don’t need more than 10 minutes for your body to respond and your skin to get tanner. Any sort of tanning is riskier than not tanning at all, but excessive tanning is definitely more dangerous than controlled tanning. You should keep yourself from tanning excessively, whether it’s indoors or not.
Premature Aging Skin
There’s no denying that exposure to UV rays causes your skin to age faster. In fact, UV exposure doesn’t just make you age faster but scientists can also tell apart signs of UV exposure vs normal aging. UVA rays, which are more common in indoor tanning beds penetrate into the deepest layers of your skin, related to signs of aging from the sun. Aging isn’t just limited to the deepest layers of your skin either. The effects of photoaging, aging from the sun, can be seen throughout all the layers of your skin.
(image from sunflybrands.com)
Aging and the signs of aging is a hot topic across the world, especially as the life expectancy of most people is increasing. Endless amounts of money are being spent on products to prevent aging. Skin creams, lotions, moisturizers, supplements, research, pills, and more.
How to Prevent Signs of Aging
Luckily, there are some steps you can take to make sure that you protect your skin and body from aging faster than you want.
- Limit UV exposure – This is one of the worst offenders for premature aging. The best way to prevent aging from UV rays is to limit your UV exposure. Lotions and moisturizers by themselves without SPF cannot protect you from the effects of UV rays.
- Use sunscreen – If you need to go out into the sun, use sunscreen with high SPF to block as much of the UV rays as possible.
- Use moisturizers – Now, for anyone trying to go tanning, avoiding UV exposure and using sunscreen makes it very hard to get darker. Moisturizers have been shown to help prevent wrinkles. Dried out skin is more prone to damage, which moisturizers can prevent. Some moisturizers are also filled with compounds to help revitalize your skin and keep it filled with nutrients that may be depleted by damage or UV exposure.
- Don’t smoke – Smoking is harmful for more than just aging, but if preventing aging is important to you, consider dropping the habit to prolong both your life and your looks.
- Limit drinking – Although it’s more commonly enjoyed across the general population, drinking too much can also age you quicker than you may naturally.
- Eat healthy – Eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole foods brings all the vitamins and nutrients you need into your body to keep as healthy as possible. You don’t need to completely eliminate indulgent treats from your diet, but eating healthy most of the time will do wonders for not only your appearance, but your energy and how you feel on a daily basis.
Although the two biggest risks from indoor tanning have been covered, there are a couple other risks that people may not fully understand before they go tanning. One immediate risk that could happen is getting burned from tanning. It’s common for new tanners to enthusiastically start tanning to get a jumpstart on their tan. Overexposure in the tanning bed is a recipe for sunburn and a possible trip to the hospital if your burns are bad enough. And if being in pain wasn’t enough, excessive exposure is the worst thing you can do for skin cancer and aging risks.
(image from medicinenet.com)
Another overlooked problem is that topic of safety and cleanliness. Tanning beds that aren’t cleaned well are a breeding ground for skin problems like funguses, ringworms, or rashes. Be sure to go to a tanning salon with a good reviews and a reputation for being clean and professional. You could have also have allergic reactions to cleaning supplies or even to the light itself. Although you can always find another tanning salon that uses different cleaning solutions, there’s unfortunately nothing you can do about light sensitivity. Be sure to always start with short sessions to understand your body’s reaction to indoor tanning.
Indoor tanning is not without it risks, but with an understanding of what you’re facing, you can tan confidently knowing that you’re doing everything you can to reduce your risks. You should always listen to your body and start slow, watching out for any signs of sensitivity. Research indoor tanning salons and pick one that is clean and professional. And when it comes to your actual tanning activity, don’t overdo the tanning. It puts you at risk of acute sunburn and also long-term damage.