Sun & Skin News

Indoor Tanning 101: Do You Know the Risks?

By Ali Venosa • June 14, 2021
Caitlin Houston

Tanning beds have no place in a healthy skin routine. Make sure you have the facts about this harmful habit.

Having worked at The Skin Cancer Foundation for several years, I am shocked at the idea that anyone still uses tanning beds. How could anyone think the look of a tan is worth the premature skin aging? Or the sharp increase in risk of developing a deadly skin cancer?

I didn’t always think this way, however. Though I stay far from the tanning salon these days, the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays and the consequences of skin cancer were far from my mind during high school. There are many women out there like me — reformed indoor tanners who quit after learning the facts about the dangerous practice. For some, like Connecticut life and style blogger Caitlin Houston, old decisions yielded very real consequences years down the road. Houston visited tanning beds before special occasions throughout high school and the years immediately after. She ended up with a basal cell carcinoma (BCC) about 10 years later, and only after a four-hour surgery and 40 stitches could she celebrate being cancer-free.

While more people, including Houston and me, are aware of the dangers of indoor tanning than ever before, there is still a good portion of the population that tans regularly. Before you step into a tanning salon, be sure you know the facts — understanding the risks of using a tanning bed could make you change your mind.

Suntan Versus Tanning Bed

A tan can appear when ultraviolet radiation reaches your skin and causes genetic damage to the cells. As the outermost layer of your skin is harmed by UV rays, the skin tries to prevent further injury by making melanin. This pigment is what produces skin darkening — what we see as a tan.

There is no such thing as a safe UV tan, whether you get it on the beach, an athletic field or in a tanning bed. Tanning beds mainly emit UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB and are primarily responsible for tanning and skin aging. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to a higher risk of skin cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified indoor tanning devices as carcinogenic, meaning they can cause cancer in humans. In fact, they list ultraviolet-emitting tanning devices in the same category as plutonium and cigarettes — yikes!

A Serious Risk Factor

The FDA has also called out indoor tanning devices as carcinogenic, and for good reason: Research shows that more people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking. As with smoking, a tanning habit is incredibly harmful because the damage is cumulative. Every time you step into a tanning booth, the damage builds up, creating more DNA mutations and increasing your risk of skin cancer. Indoor tanning at a young age (when many may want a bronze look for prom or spring break) compounds the damage. You don’t have to be a religious tanner to increase your risk — even sporadic tanning bed use can have serious consequences. Just one indoor tanning session before age 35 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent.

“I visited tanning beds each spring in high school because all of my friends were going as a part of ‘getting ready for prom,’” Houston recalls. “Over the next few years, I would visit tanning beds periodically before tropical vacations or special occasions.”

Houston developed a BCC on the side of her face, an area her dermatologist said was likely affected by her teenage tanning.

“There are absolutely zero benefits of a tanning bed that can outweigh the risks of UV radiation,” Houston says. “Indoor tanning can cause irreversible skin damage and skin cancer — which can have devastating consequences.”

Not a Good Look

Beyond the risk of developing skin cancer, indoor tanning can wreak aesthetic havoc on your skin. Rather than the “healthy glow” often cited by tanning advocates, indoor tanning can dehydrate and prematurely age your skin.

“When I went to my first dermatologist appointment, I was preparing to get married and wanted to learn how to take better care of my skin,” Houston says. “The dermatologist did not hold back on my evaluation. She told me the sun damage to my face would be irreversible if I didn’t start taking better care of my skin. She also told me tanning was ‘aging me’ too quickly — which is the last thing a 23-year-old wants to hear!”

UV damage, especially the concentrated kind from a tanning bed, can cause unsightly dark spots, fine lines and leathery skin. Also, the idea that indoor tanning can help hide the appearance of acne is false: any improvement in the appearance of red blemishes is temporary at best. When a sunburn or tan begins to fade, it often leads to itching, peeling and flaking. You may be tempted to pick at your skin, which can lead to scarring.

Say Yes to a Healthy Glow

The best way to avoid the very real risks of indoor tanning is simple: avoid it! I know how tempting it can be to want the look of a tan for a vacation or summer break, but the consequences down the road aren’t worth it. While learning to appreciate your skin’s natural tone is a great way to avoid the risks of tanning, there are plenty of sunless tanning options out there.

Since her skin cancer diagnosis, Houston protects her skin from UV rays with sunscreen, UPF clothing and hats. She recommends visiting a salon for an airbrush tan if you want a natural looking glow for a special event. Gone are the days when an obvious orange spray tan is your only safe alternative for a bronze look. Self-tanners come in lotions, sprays, gels and even drops you can add to your favorite moisturizer. That way, you can achieve a “tan” without sacrificing your skin’s health. Of course, that faux glow still requires sun protection, and keeping skin healthy and safe from UV rays is a surefire way to keep it glowing.

“There are absolutely zero benefits of a tanning bed that can outweigh the risks of UV radiation,” Houston says. “Indoor tanning can cause irreversible skin damage and skin cancer — which can have devastating consequences.”