Tanning beds and sunlamps promise a bronzed body year-round.

Unfortunately, the lights that give you a tan can also give you a whole lot more than you bargained for.

person inside a tanning bed

Tanning lamps, booths and beds

Exposure to UV (ultraviolet ) radiation — whether from the sun or from artificial sources such as sunlamps used in tanning beds — increases the risk of developing skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is linked to getting severe sunburns, especially at a young age.

“Although some people think that a tan gives them a ‘healthy’ glow, any tan is a sign of skin damage,” says Sharon Miller, MSEE, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist and international expert on UV radiation and tanning.

>> 14 tips to avoid sunburn

“A tan is the skin’s reaction to exposure to UV rays,” says Miller. “Recognizing exposure to the rays as an ‘insult,’ the skin acts in self-defense by producing more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin. Over time, this damage will lead to prematurely aged skin and, in some cases, skin cancer.”

Both UV-B and UV-A rays damage the skin and can lead to skin cancer. Like the sun, the lamps used in tanning booths and beds emit UV radiation. (While most lamps emit both UVA and UVB radiation, some emit only UVA.)

Tanning bed myths and problems

Some argue that artificial tanning is less dangerous because the intensity of light and the time spent tanning are controlled. There is, however, limited evidence to support these claims. Studies have shown consistently that indoor tanning increases a person’s risk of getting skin cancer, including melanoma.

Overall, sunlamps may be more dangerous than the sun because they can be used at the same intensity every day of the year — something that is unlikely for the sun because of winter weather and cloud cover. They can also be more dangerous because people can expose their entire bodies at each session, which would be less likely outdoors.

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A base tan is not a safe tan: A tan is the body’s response to injury from UV rays. A base tan does little to protect you from future damage to your skin caused by UV exposure. In fact, people who indoor tan are more likely to report getting sunburned.

Indoor tanning is not a safe way to get vitamin D: Although it is important to get enough vitamin D, the safest way to do so is through what you eat. Tanning harms your skin, and the amount of UV exposure you need to get enough vitamin D is hard to measure because it is different for every person and also varies with the weather, latitude, altitude and other factors.

>> When choosing sunscreen, what is the best SPF?

Indoor tanning is particularly dangerous for younger users; people who begin indoor tanning during adolescence or early adulthood have a higher risk of getting melanoma. This may be due to greater use of indoor tanning among those who begin tanning at earlier ages.

tanning bed tanIn addition to the serious risk of skin cancer, tanning can cause:

  • Premature aging. Tanning causes the skin to lose elasticity and wrinkle prematurely. This leathery look may not show up until many years after you’ve had a tan or sunburn.
  • Immune suppression. UV-B radiation may suppress proper functioning of the body’s immune system and the skin’s natural defenses, leaving you more vulnerable to diseases, including skin cancer.
  • Eye damage. Exposure to UV radiation can cause irreversible damage to the eyes.
  • Allergic reaction. Some people who are especially sensitive to UV radiation may develop an itchy red rash and other adverse effects.

According to a 2014 study, an estimated 3,234 indoor tanning-related injuries are treated each year in US hospitals. People injured tended to be female (82.2 percent), non-Hispanic white (77.8 percent) and between the ages 18 to 24 years (35.5 percent).

Most of the injuries were skin burns (79.5 percent), syncope (passing out, 9.5 percent) and eye injuries (5.8 percent), according to the study data.

The number of indoor tanning-related injuries decreased from 6,487 in 2003 to 1,957 in 2012, which the authors suggest is likely due to a reduction in indoor tanning.

If you want to use tanning lamps, booths or beds

If you use indoor tanning equipment, follow these steps to reduce the dangers of UV exposure:

  • Be sure to wear the goggles provided, making sure they fit snugly and are not cracked.
  • Start slowly and use short exposure times to build up a tan over time.
  • DON’T use the maximum exposure time the first time you tan because you could get burned, and burns are thought to be related to melanoma.
  • Follow manufacturer-recommended exposure times for your skin type. Check the label for exposure times.
  • Stick to your time limit.
  • After a tan is developed, tan no more than once a week. Depending on your skin type, you may even be able to maintain your tan with one exposure every 2-3 weeks.

>> Sun protection in childhood prevents skin cancer in adults

Because sunburn takes 6 to 48 hours to develop, you may not realize your skin is burned until it is too late.

You should not use a tanning bed or lamp if:

  • You sunburn easily and do not tan. Skin that does not tan in the sun will probably not tan under a sunlamp.
  • You have a family history of melanoma.
  • You get frequent cold sores. UV radiation may cause them to appear more frequently due to immune system suppression.
  • You are taking medicines that can make you more sensitive to UV rays. Check with your doctor or pharmacist.

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