Indoor tanning and the connection to skin cancer

By now, most of us must have heard that tanning is not good for our health, as the UV rays emitted from tanning beds penetrate our skin, damaging it deeply. What is the exact connection between indoor tanning and skin cancer? Let’s have a look at how these two are linked.

Stats show an increase in skin cancer for those who tan

According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, as many as 90% of melanomas are estimated to be caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure. Indoor tanning beds expose users directly to UVA and UVB rays. This exposure can be particularly dangerous and has been shown to be a driver of skin cancer. Take a look at some of the stats below that support this claim:

  • Indoor tanning before the age of 30 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent.
  • A study in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that UV light from the sun and tanning beds can both cause melanoma and increase the risk of a benign mole developing into melanoma.
  • Another study showed that higher melanoma rates among young females compared to young males may be due in part to the widespread use of indoor tanning among women.
  • Exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning has been shown to damage the DNA in skin cells.

The incidence of skin cancer has been increasing over the past several decades, especially among younger adults. While many factors may be responsible for this trend, UV exposure patterns are widely accepted as a significant contributor.

Suspicious spots on your skin from UV exposure? Use SkinVision to detect early signs of skin cancer.

But what if you just want to get a base tan?

The idea that you should get a ‘base tan’ before a beach holiday or a long day out in the sun is widespread and misleading. While it may sound like a good idea, the fact is that any tan is essentially skin damage reflected on the skin as the skin naturally darkens to prevent further damage from occurring.

Dr. Steven Rotter, the director of the Center for Skin Surgery at the Skin Cancer Outpatient Surgical Hospital in Virginia, explained in an interview with the Skin Cancer Foundation that “there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ tan. Tanning beds contain a lot of UVA radiation. The UVA radiation does not burn the skin as fast as UVB radiation, but it penetrates deeper into the skin and causes irreversible skin aging — loss of elasticity, sagging, wrinkles, brown spots and more. Also, UVA, like UVB, can cause skin cancer.

The best way to protect yourself for a beach holiday or a period of high sun exposure is to apply broad-spectrum sunscreen regularly (as part of your skincare routine), wear sun-protective clothing, and seek shade whenever possible.

Do we get vitamin D from tanning beds?

Many would argue (especially the tanning industry) that indoor tanning is, in fact, a healthy practice, because we receive vitamin D from UV exposure that our body needs to function correctly. However, this is not true for a few reasons, as explained below.

Indoor tanning and the connection to skin cancer

Most tanning beds don’t stimulate vitamin D production

There are two types of UV rays emitted by the sun and in tanning booths: UVA and UVB rays. Both types are linked to skin cancer, but UVB rays are the ones that stimulate the production of vitamin D in our bodies. Most tanning salons, however, calibrate their beds to emit mainly UVA rays. Why? Because UVA rays have longer wavelengths that penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, creating a bronze tan with less likelihood of burning as compared to UVB rays. But this means that if you do indoor tanning with the intention of stimulating vitamin D production, you are most likely not even receiving this benefit, but you are undoubtedly damaging your skin.

You can get vitamin D from other sources

The sun is not the only way to get vitamin D. You can use food supplements or receive vitamin D from certain foods such as fatty fish, some cereals, and eggs. However, it is worth noting that your body will not readily store vitamin D without fat – so taking vitamin D supplements with something fatty such as olive oil can help in absorption.

Also, it is important to note that only very limited UV exposure is needed to get all the vitamin D you need. It is estimated that exposing your face and arms to direct sunlight for just 5-10 minutes three times a week throughout the year is enough. Further, prolonged sun exposure will not lead to increases of vitamin D. Rather, your levels will remain steady, but your risk of developing skin cancer symptoms will significantly increase.

So before you jump into a tanning bed to get some vitamin D, contact your doctor to see if you are actually vitamin D deficient and if so, discuss safe ways you can meet your body’s vitamin D needs.

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