Are Tanning Beds Safe?

Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2008
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New research finds that tanning beds are just as risky as sun exposure

tanning bedIf you tan in salons to avoid the harmful effects of the sun’s rays, you probably aren’t doing your skin any favors. People who use tanning beds likely face the same risk of deadly skin cancer as those who lay out in the sun, according to a report in Pigment Cell Melanoma Research.

Research has found that people who use tanning beds are far more likely to develop melanoma—the most dangerous form of skin cancer, particularly if they start tanning at an early age. Those who begin using tanning beds before age 35 face a 75 percent higher risk for melanoma. It’s also likely that tanning beds increase the risk for other types of skin cancers, although the research isn’t yet definitive.

Yet despite these risks, indoor tanning remains popular, particularly among young women.  More than one million Americans visit a tanning salon each day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. This popularity may stem from the misconception that using tanning beds is safer than tanning outdoors. “The reason that young women feel ‘safe’ is that artificial tanning devices are promoted as ‘safe’ due to the high proportion of ultraviolet A (UVA), which until relatively recently was considered innocuous. It is not,” says study author Marianne Berwick, PhD, MPH, professor and chief in the Division of Epidemiology at the University of New Mexico.

Although ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are thought to cause most sunburns, both UVA and UVB rays are now believed to contribute to skin cancer. The ratio of UVA to UVB in most tanning beds is similar to that of sunlight, but it’s difficult to know exactly how much exposure you’re getting because the majority of tanning parlors don’t calibrate the tanning beds or measure UVA and UVB output, Dr. Berwick says.

People who tan indoors are actually less protected from ultraviolet rays because they tend to wear fewer clothes than they would outdoors. “The problem stems from the fact that folks use them with almost no clothes on – so they get a whole body exposure,” according to Dr. Berwick. Whereas 15 to 50 percent of people’s bodies are typically exposed outside, as much as 95 to 100 percent of their bodies may be exposed in tanning beds.

Researchers still don’t know exactly how much tanning bed exposure is needed to increase the odds of developing melanoma. They are also unsure of how to separate the risks from tanning bed exposure and sunlight exposure in people who use both methods to tan. Further studies will seek to answer these questions, and to clarify what role genes play in making people more susceptible to skin cancer.

Until then the best advice, particularly for those under age 18, according to Dr. Berwick, is to avoid tanning beds entirely; limit your outdoor sun exposure, especially during the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and if you do tan (indoors or outdoors), covering your eyes and wearing sunscreen may help protect your skin, although it’s not clear whether sunscreen can actually prevent melanoma and other skin cancers.
Berwick M. Are tanning beds “safe”? Human studies of melanoma. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. 21;517-519.
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