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Think twice about that tanning bed this winter

September 30, 2019 / Duncan Fisher
Trends are down, but indoor tanning is still widespread, and dangerous.

Summer is over, and tans are fading. Beauty magazines, as they always do, are running features on how to extend those lovely beach tones into the autumn, as far as possible.

Most of these tan-extending tips are all right, too, from a medical standpoint. They’re about cosmetics, or moisturizing, or things like eating lemons. They don’t do any harm, and maybe they help.

But a lot of readers about now are also beginning to think about indoor tanning as an option for reinforcing the summer tans. They’re thinking about going to sunbeds.

That’s not good.

We’re very tempted to think of sunbeds as indoor trips to the beach, perfectly natural and perfectly safe. The problem is, they’re not trips to the beach, and they’re not safe at all.

Tanning beds are for maximizing exposure to ultraviolet radiation. You don’t wear sunblock in them. Doing that, especially at sunbed doses, is dangerous. It’s so dangerous, that in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is coming under serious pressure to regulate the whole indoor tanning industry.

We’re getting the message

Thankfully, people are catching on.

Between 2010 and 2015, American use of sunbeds fell by a third. Surveys show that where once 5.5% of adults reported going to tanning salons, the figure dropped to 3.5%. It appears to be falling still. Most encouraging, this drop includes young, Caucasian women, the group most likely to use sunbeds, and the group most at risk for sun-related skin cancers.

That’s a reduction from 11.7 million people to 7.8 million.

But things are still serious

But 7.8 million is still a lot of people at needless risk of cancer – and this is just in the United States alone. The indoor tanning numbers worldwide remain enormously high, and the connection with skin cancer is absolutely undeniable. Epidemiologically speaking, it’s an epidemic.

The American Academy of Dermatology highlighted this in New York over the summer, at its annual meeting. They showed that between 1970 and 2009, rates of melanoma, the deadliest of the skin cancers, increased 800% among young women, and basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma rates also rose, by 145% and 263%.

This cancer trend, as they showed, parallels sunbed statistics exactly. Researchers calculate that indoor tanning beds have been directly responsible for more than 400,000 new cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year, the majority of them in women, and the majority of these, young women.

The alt-truths you hear

You’ll notice, if you follow these things, that tanning salons are using health-benefit language more than beauty language lately. The industry is aware that sunbed use is dropping fast, and they’re trying to argue now that indoor tanning is, despite the evidence, good for you. You should over-tan because it’s healthy somehow.

It isn’t, and legal prosecutors at the Federal Trade Commission are scrutinizing these health-benefit claims closely.

Here are some of the claims you can find online. They’re all untrue, or only half-true:

- Sunbeds improve your mood.

- Sunbeds boost the immune system.

- Sunbeds help you make vitamin D.

- Sunbeds give you a ‘base tan’, that protects you from sunburn.

- Indoor tanning is unrelated to skin cancer.

- Indoor tanning is safer than outdoor tanning, because it’s ‘monitored’ or ‘controlled’.

What tanning beds really do to you

Of course, it is true, and research supports this, that exposure to an ordinary amount of daylight is good for you. Our elders used to send us outside for ‘fresh air and sunshine’ for some good reasons.

But that’s not the same as sunbeds.

Indoor tanning concentrates the most mutagenic parts of the solar spectrum right on you. ‘Mutagenic’ means cancer-causing. Ultraviolet radiation damages cell DNA. For that reason it is known to encourage carcinoma in the skin, melanoma in the skin, and – read this carefully – melanoma in the eye. (Yes, there is eye cancer.)

Just how mutagenic is UV light?

A single indoor tanning session statistically increases your lifetime risk of melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67%, and basal cell carcinoma by 29%. The effect increases every time you go. It increases even faster if you’re young.

Heavy ultraviolet radiation also ages your skin, principally by damaging the elastic fibers that keep your skin firm. Once those fibers are damaged, by the way, they can’t be repaired. That kind of sun-damage doesn’t go away.

Concentrated ultraviolet radiation has even been shown to be an immunosuppressant, and to raise inflammatory markers in the skin, like cytokines, prostaglandins and interleukins. So much for ‘boosting the immune system’.

Going to the sunbed is simply not like going outside for some sunshine. It’s like cooking on the beach with zero sunblock, for hours.

Safe – and beautiful – alternatives

We all want to look nice. But there are better ways to manage it than sunbeds.

Fake tans work. They’re getting more realistic, and they do no harm. Cosmetic tricks can emphasize light tans, too, and make them look deeper. Medically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with any of these.

But really, if you’re a sun worshiper, you may want to review your philosophy about the need for deep tanning in general. Does your skin need to be so dark? If so, why?

Medically and aesthetically you might think in terms of healthy skin instead of darkened skin – the ‘natural glow’ that magazines do encourage, instead of melanocytic skin in distress (which is what your over-tan really is).

A bit of natural sunshine is part of that healthy look, so you needn’t (and shouldn’t) shun the sun completely. But for the sake of your health, be nice to yourself. Stay out of the tanning bed, and take care of the beautiful skin you’ve been given.