Tanning Salons and Vitamin D Hype

Sue Chung Health Guide
  • Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to feedback@skincancerconnection.com.

    Reader's Questions: Are tanning beds really that dangerous? I only use them once every few weeks or when I go on vacation. Besides, isn't sunlight necessary to make vitamin D?

    Sue's Response:
    If I really wanted to scare you away from tanning beds, I could just suggest you watch the first half hour of Final Destination 3. It's a teen horror flick about creepy ways to die. One of the first scenarios involves two girls going into a tanning salon and, in a bizarre series of accidents, somehow getting stuck in the tanning beds and burning to death. Trust me; you'll think twice about ever walking into one of those places again.
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    Of course, the movie depicts an extremely far-fetched idea of all the things that could (or couldn't) possibly go wrong on a tanning bed. However, if you believe that lying on tanning bed once every few weeks isn't doing any harm, you're still falling for a bizarre series of half-truths spouted by the tanning bed industry.

    Just as tobacco companies used to ignore and even deny the claims that smoking led to various types of cancer, the tanning salon industry continues to mislead its customers in order to keep business booming. The tanning bed industry is now a $5 billion industry and has enjoyed skyrocketing sales since 2000. The industry's head honchos announce loudly that their tanning beds are not only safe, but can protect you from melanoma and will promote your health by increasing your body's ability to produce vitamin D.

    Getting the Facts Straight

    Let's take a look at two of the most misleading facts that the tanning industry uses and compare it with the medical community's assessment.

    - Tanning is the most effective way to produce an adequate supply of vitamin D

    Doctors say this is a gross overstatement of fact. Exposure to sunlight does allow your body to produce a supply of vitamin D. However, as little as 15-20 minutes of sunlight on your face is enough to produce an adequate supply of vitamin D for an entire month. In addition, some studies show that tanning can actually break down the existing vitamin D supply in your body.

    To counteract the tanning industry's claims, many health proponents point out that you can boost your supply of vitamin D with nutritional sources such as fortified dairy products and salmon. In addition, lack of sun exposure does not create a vitamin D deficiency. In case studies, people who suffer from xeroderma pigmentosa (a skin condition that causes extreme sensitivity to any UV radiation and requires avoiding sunlight completely) do not show any significant lack of vitamin D.

    - Tanning beds only use UVA rays, which are less harmful than UVB rays and don't cause burning

    The truth? Tanning beds do contain UVB rays—about the same amount found in natural sunlight. UVB rays are more dangerous since they cause burning far more quickly than UVA rays. However, UVA rays will also burn skin and are known to cause precancerous cell growth. The UVA levels in tanning beds can be up to 15 times stronger than sunlight, increasing the risk of burning and serious skin damage.

  • In addition, many tanning salon employees misinform customers by explaining that the UVA rays can benefit your skin and boost your skin's defenses against cancer. In reality, the American Academy of Dermatology supports a ban on all indoor tanning beds. UV radiation, whether indoors or out, is still UV radiation.
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    Getting Happy without Tanning

    One reason why so many people continue to visit tanning salons despite the link to skin cancer is the endorphin rush that tanning releases. People who live in colder climates often use tanning to treat seasonal affective disorder, a mild depression that affects people in winter when sunlight is less readily available. If this is what draws you to your local tanning salon, consider safer ways to release those endorphins. Replace the indoor tanning with outdoor exercise and opt for massages instead of tanning sessions. These activities will leave you feeling indulged without upping your risk for skin cancer.

Published On: February 21, 2007