Some people have concerns about the negative effects of tanning; namely, whether or not using a tanning bed will cause cancer. Scientific research is undeniable - tanning and melanoma have been positively linked. How can such an enjoyable activity be so dangerous? Ultraviolet light is to blame. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation has been linked with cell mutation and skin cancer, but it generally takes several years, even decades of extended exposure to develop a significantly increased risk of cancer. But using a tanning bed won't necessarily give you cancer; it just increases your risk of developing cancer. (You know, like people who smoke tobacco - plenty of them never get lung cancer.)
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, frequent tanning can increase your chance of developing cancer by 75%, that's a huge number! Journalist, Hiran Ratnayake, did some digging into tanning studies and research, and found a study performed by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. This study revealed that the chance of developing melanoma for non-tanners is less than 1% - some say as low as 2/10s of 1%! A 75% increase would make a tanner's risk a little more than 3/10 of 1%. If these tiny numbers are accurate, the risk of developing cancer is actually very low; it is probably more likely for someone with a family history of skin cancer to contract the disease than a tanning bed user.
I could argue that the risk of indoor tanning is not as bad as organizations like the FDA and World Health Organization may have us believe. Tanning has been recommended by trained, certified doctors, especially for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - a disorder that some people have during dark seasons. Studies have shown that exposure to sunlight can help elevate mood and improve energy levels. The UV lights in tanning beds can increase Vitamin D levels, which positively affect temperament and energy. According to a research paper, written by a Vanderbilt psychology student, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proved that people who regularly use tanning beds had higher levels of Vitamin D than those who didn't use tanning beds (no one in the study took Vitamin D supplements). Many would say this obvious benefit outweighs the risks.
Vitamin D deficiencies among Americans is alarmingly high, but spending 20 minutes in the sun, a couple times a week, or in a tanning bed once a week, can help increase Vitamin D levels. Eating Vitamin-D rich foods, such as fish and eggs, and/or taking vitamin D supplements can also increase vitamin D levels. There are many ways to get the Vitamin D you need, but the best way is by sun exposure. Experts have argued that Vitamin D created by the sun's rays is water soluble, while vitamin D supplements must have a certain level of LDL (bad cholesterol) to dissolve properly in the body. If you have a vitamin D deficiency, I recommend talking to your doctor about the best method for you.
There are two kinds of ultraviolet rays used in tanning beds: UV-A and UV-B. UV-A rays penetrate to the deep layers of skin, while UV-B rays, most known for giving sunburns, only affect the top layers of skin. According to FDA research, both rays can be harmful at high intensities and long exposures. Even if your skin does not burn, the UV rays may have negative effects on your skin and overall health.
Tanning salons often say that tanning devices are safer than outdoor tanning because the exposure can be controlled. This is only true if you use tanning devices in moderation at low levels; frequently using a tanning bed at high intensity can be more dangerous than unprotected sun exposure. If you think that seems a bit extreme, it's not. The sun reaches its highest intensity levels between 10am and 4pm each day, but the intensity levels vary day by day. Most people who use tanning beds use consistent intensity levels, around the maximum intensity for the machines. Frequent tanners do this in addition to exposing themselves to the natural sun rays at various points during the day - so the exposure and risk is much higher.
I have heard some people say that getting a base tan helps protect skin from harmful UV rays. This claim is true, but the protection isn't as much as you may think. Studies by the CDC claim that a base tan is equivalent to wearing SPF 3 sunscreen - not a whole lot. If you really want to protect your skin from harmful UV rays wear sunscreen while you tan - indoors and outdoors. Another way to protect yourself is to limit your time in the sun, especially if you are already tanning indoors. People who indoor tan have a tendency to spend more time outdoors, maybe they like to tan before they hit the beach, increasing their exposure to harmful UV rays.
Finally, if you decide to tan regularly, make regular appointments with your doctor to check for cancerous growths. At the very least, you should have an exam once a year, but some frequent tanners recommend getting a checkup every six months. While tanning has health and beauty benefits, there is still a risk of cancer and other adverse effects. However, with yearly doctor check-ups you can rest assured that you remain healthy and happy. These checkups are also a great way to get rid of cancerous growths before they become too serious to treat.
According to the FDA, these are some additional things to be aware of when you decide to use a tanning bed:
- Always wear the goggles provided - without these you can develop short or long term eye injury and/or disease, such as cataracts.
- Short exposures are the best way to avoid skin burns.
- Always follow recommended skin practices based on your skin type - doing so will decrease your likelihood of burning and/or contracting cancer.
- Talk to your doctor before you begin indoor tanning - certain medications and cosmetics may make you more sensitive to UV rays.
Remember, exposure to UV light is very beneficial, if it is done in moderation. Overexposure to UV lights can be very damaging. Tanning can also be very addictive, so set limits for yourself if you have an addictive personality. I recommend no more than once a week at low intensity; doing so will keep you healthy and decrease your chance of addiction and cancer development.