Information about the Harmful Effects of Tanning and Tanning Beds

Tanning occurs when the skin overproduces a pigment called melanin, causing the skin to darken. A tan is the body's defense against dangerous exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays—from the sun or an artificial source like a tanning bed.

Indoor tanning has become increasingly popular, especially among teenage girls and young women. However, much has recently been learned about the dangers of UV exposure. The simple fact about tanning is this: Any tan is unhealthy—whether caused by the rays of the sun or indoor tanning.

Tanning Booth Image

Exposure to UV rays has a number of short- and long-term adverse health effects. Short-term effects include sunburn and, in people who are sensitive to UV radiation, an allergic reaction that produces an itchy rash. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about 3,000 people visit emergency rooms each year because of injuries involving indoor tanning beds and lamps. In a recent survey, 58 percent of adolescents who use tanning beds reported having suffered a burn as a result of indoor tanning.

Long-term effects of UV exposure include damage to the skin, eyes and immune system. Tanning causes the skin to lose its elasticity and increases the risk for premature aging, wrinkles, age spots and skin cancer—including melanoma—the most serious form of skin cancer.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, melanoma is the second most common type of cancer in women between the ages of 20 and 29. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that more than 68,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year in the United States, and of those, about one person in eight will die from the disease. Exposure to UV radiation also can cause irreversible damage to the eyes and suppress the body’s immune system.

About Indoor Tanning

Two types of ultraviolet radiation—UVA rays and UVB rays—cause skin damage. Indoor tanning beds typically emit UVA rays—sometimes at a higher concentration than the sun—and some lamps also give off UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate and damage the skin, and according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), increase the risk for skin cancer. The NCI reports that women who use tanning beds more than once a month have a 55 percent higher risk of melanoma.

In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), put indoor tanning lamps in its highest-cancer-risk category. After studying more than 25 years of research, the IARC concluded that indoor tanning is more dangerous than previously believed. Following a review of about 20 studies, the group determined that it can several years to decades for skin cancer to develop and recommended a ban on indoor tanning for people younger than 18 to protect them from the serious risk.

Other findings include the following:

  • Indoor tanning increases the risk for melanoma and other types of skin cancer (e.g., squamous cell carcinoma).
  • Indoor tanning increase the risk for certain eye cancers.
  • UVA and/or UVB rays from the sun or an indoor tanning device damage DNA.
  • Regularly tanning indoors before the age of 35 results in about a 75 percent higher risk of melanoma.

Although there are some limitations to this research, the IARC stands by its conclusions: There is convincing evidence that indoor tanning is associated with an increase risk for melanoma. The use of tanning salons should be discouraged.

In May 2014, the FDA reclassified sunlamp products and UV lamps used in sunlamp products from class-I to class-II (moderate-risk) devices. The agency also began requiring that all indoor tanning products contain a visible black-box warning stating that they should not be used in people under the age of 18 and additional warnings and contraindications. Manufacturers of these devices sold in the United States will have to follow additional requirements for pre-marketing and marketing.

Indoor Tanning vs. the Sun

Recommendations from major health organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute, the American Academy of Dermatology and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, advise limiting sun exposure and avoiding indoor tanning completely. However, in spite of these recommendations, recent studies show that about 28 million people—2.3 million of them teenagers—visit indoor tanning facilities each year in the United States. In fact, more than 1 million people tan indoors every day and seventy percent of indoor tanning salon patrons are Caucasian women between the ages of 16 and 29.

People who support indoor tanning often claim that tanning beds are safer than the sun because the intensity of the UV radiation and the exposure time can be controlled. However, the intensity of the sun varies according to the time of day, the season and the cloud cover, and tanning beds can be used at the same intensity every day throughout the year—potentially increasing damaging exposure. The fact is tanning, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, is unhealthy, dangerous and advised against.

Indoor tanning practices that increase the danger associated with tanning beds even further include:

  • Not following recommended exposure times for your skin type
  • Starting with maximum or near-maximum exposure times (Burns can take 6 to 48 hours to develop so you may not realize your skin is burned until it’s too late.)
  • Not wearing goggles to protect your eyes from damage
  • Tanning while using certain medications that increase sensitivity to UV rays

Indoor tanning devices are regulated by the FDA and the agency issues performance standards for their use. In 2011, California became the first state to ban the use of indoor tanning devices by children under the age of 18. As of May 2012, most states restrict indoor tanning in minors (e.g., require parental consent) and many are considering laws to prevent anyone under the age of 18 from using these facilities.

Look for updated guidelines and recommendations regarding UV exposure and indoor tanning soon. In the meantime, avoid tanning beds, wear sunscreen every day, protect yourself from overexposure to UV rays. Consider trying the new generation of self-tanners and spray-on tans—they’re often easy to apply and can provide good results at a reasonable price.

Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 09 May 2012

Last Modified: 05 Mar 2015