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Indoor Tanning

You know that basking in the sun is bad for you — sun worshippers have prematurely aging skin, wrinkles, and maybe even skin cancer to look forward to. But what about tanning beds? Unfortunately, they can still cause the same (or worse) problems. In fact, doctors say that the use of tanning salons is one reason they're treating more and more young patients for skin cancer.

Indoor Tanning vs. Sunlight

The sun's rays contain two types of ultraviolet radiation that affect your skin: UVA and UVB. UVB radiation burns the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), causing sunburns. UVA radiation penetrates to the lower layers of the epidermis, where it triggers cells called melanocytes (pronounced: mel-an-oh-sites) to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes tanning.

Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin aging. Both types also can cause potentially cancerous changes in your cells' DNA. And, according to a recent study, radiation from just 10 indoor-tanning sessions in 2 weeks can suppress a person's cancer-fighting immune system.

Tanning beds use UVA light, which penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB rays. So tanning beds can cause just as much — if not more — damage as the sun. Plus, the concentration of UVA rays from a tanning bed is greater than the amount of UVA rays a person gets from the sun. And despite manufacturer claims, some tanning lamps do also emit UVB light.

So if you try indoor tanning, you'll absorb far more rays in the long run, significantly age your skin, and put yourself at even greater risk for skin cancer.

What Tanning Salons Don't Tell You

Studies show that users of tanning beds and tanning lamps have much higher risks of basal and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of skin cancer. Doctors also know that young people are more at risk for melanoma, the most serious kind of skin cancer. It used to be that mostly older people got melanoma, but doctors now see more people in their twenties (or even younger) with serious cases of skin cancer.

Don't rely on tanning salons to let you know about the risks of using their product they're in business to make money, after all. Sometimes employees actually don't know much about the damage tanning beds can do. They mistakenly believe they are safer than the sun, even though they can do as much damage or more.

Laws are changing to protect consumers, but some states are farther along than others when it comes to passing tanning bed laws. In most places, it's up to the salon to watch out for customers and maintain their equipment.

Minimizing Your Risk

People who have tanned in the past already have skin damage — even if they can't see it yet — and need to be very cautious about getting more UV exposure. Everyone (even people who tan easily) should wear sunscreen or sun-protective clothing (or both) while outdoors, and have their skin checked periodically by a dermatologist for suspicious moles or other lesions.

You don't have to go without a sun-bronzed look. The new generation of self-tanners and body makeups offer easy, realistic results at a reasonable price. Just be sure to use a daily sunblock with an SPF of at least 15 when you go outdoors since fake tanners don't protect you against sunburn or sun damage (and some scientists believe that fake tanners might even make skin more susceptible to sun damage).

There's one thing to be cautious about when it comes to self-tanners: It's a good idea to avoid airbrush or spray-on tans. The FDA hasn't approved DHA (the main ingredient in self-tanners) for use internally or on mucous membranes (like the lips). Spray tans may have unknown health risks because people can breathe in the spray, or the tanner may end up on their lips or eye area.

Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012