The Dangers of Tanning Beds: Five Fast Facts

Nearly 30 million people in the U.S. tan in tanning salons every year; on average, that's more than 1 million people a day who are baking themselves under tanning lamps.

by Hema Sundaram, M.D. Health Professional

1. It's Big Business

Nearly 30 million people in the U.S. tan in tanning salons every year; on average, that's more than 1 million people a day who are baking themselves under tanning lamps. More than 70% of them are Caucasian females aged 16 to 49 years. The indoor tanning industry's revenues have increased fivefold since 1992, to about $5 billion.

2. Our Youth Are At Risk

2.3 million teens visit tanning salons in the U.S. every year. According to a Swedish study, the younger you are when you start indoor tanning, the greater your risk of melanoma. A review of seven studies revealed that your risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent if you're exposed to tanning beds before the age of 35[1]. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for teens to be banned from indoor tanning due to the dangers[7], only half of the states in the U.S. regulate tanning bed use by teens.

3. It's a Proven Danger

Many studies show that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light is a definite risk factor for melanoma. Using a tanning bed more than 10 times a year made people seven times more likely to develop malignant melanoma than those who did not use tanning beds as often. The risk of melanoma was increased by 300% for those using tanning beds occasionally and by 800% for those using tanning beds more than 10 times a year. The FDA estimates that about 38,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year in the U.S. and 7,300 people will die from this condition. The United States Department of Health & Human Services names UV radiation from the sun, and from artificial sources such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a proven carcinogen - a cancer causing substance.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advise people to avoid tanning and the use of sun lamps. Both the American Medical Association (ADA) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) are fighting to ban the non-medical use of tanning equipment. The CDC report that tanning beds also cause serious eye problems including conjunctivitis, corneal infections and retinal damage.

4. There's No Such Thing as a "Safe Tan"

Sunlight contains different wavelengths of UV light. UVA rays penetrate deeper into your skin and cause tanning. UVB rays damage the more superficial skin layers and cause sunburn. Many tanning salons claim that indoor tanning is safe because you are exposed to more tanning UVA rays than burning UVB rays. Medical research disproves this claim. Skin cancer is certainly associated with sunburn from UVB rays, but scientists at the FDA and other respected institutions now have evidence that even moderate tanning due to UVA rays produces the same long-term skin damage as a sunburn, increasing your risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging, and damaging your immune system. UVA rays penetrate deep into your skin, causing significant destruction and loss of skin elasticity. UVA exposure is associated with an increased risk for squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma.

5. Indoor Tanning May Actually Be More Dangerous Than the Sun

Traditional tanning beds and sun lamps typically give off about three times the UVA rays that are emitted by the sun. New, high-pressure sunlamps emit doses of both UVA and UVB rays that can be as much as 15 times that of the sun. A U.K. study found that human skin cells exposed to tanning beds in a laboratory sustained severe DNA damage of the type that is associated with skin cancer development. Tanning beds are also proven to cause sunburns, and just one sunburn doubles your risk of developing skin cancer.

Tanning salons claim that tanning is necessary to obtain sufficient quantities of vitamin D. In fact, it takes far less UV light to obtain the necessary amount of vitamin D than it does to get a suntan.

Bottom Line

Beware of tanning beds Pretty much every scientifically accepted study shows the strong association of tanning beds with skin cancer.

  • Whitmore SE, Morison, WL, Potten CS, Chadwick C. Tanning salon exposure and molecular alterations. J Am Acad Dermatol 2001;44:775-80.

  • Swerdlow AJ, Weinstock MA. Do tanning lamps cause melanoma? An epidemiologic assessment. J Am Acad Dermatol 1998;38:89-98.

  • Dellavalle RP, Parker ER, Ceronsky N, Hester EJ, Hemme B, Burkhardt DL, et al. Youth access laws: in the dark at the tanning parlor? Arch Dermatol 2003;139:443-8.

  • Demierre MF. Time for the national legislation of indoor tanning to protect minors_. Arch Dermatol_ 2003;139:520-4.

  • Kwon HT, Mayer JA, Walker KK, Yu H, Lewis EC, Belch GE. Promotion of frequent tanning sessions by indoor tanning facilities: two studies. J Am Acad Dermatol 2003;46:700-5.

  • Westerdahl J, Ingvar C, MasbackA. Jonsson N, Olsson H. Risk of cutaneous malignant melanoma in relation to use of sunbeds: further evidence for UV-A carcinogenicity. Br J Cancer 2000;82:1593-9.

  • Francis SO, Burkhardt DL, Dellavalle RP. 2005: A banner year for new US youth access tanning restrictions. Arch Dermatol 2005;141:524-5.

  • Gandini S, et al. "Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: Sun exposure. Euro. J Cancer. 2005 January; 41(1):45-60.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Report on carcinogens, 11th ed: Exposure to sunlamps or sunbeds.

  • Karagas M, et al. Use of tanning devices and risk of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers." J Natl Cancer Inst. 2002 February 6;94(3):224-6.

  • (Woollons, Clingen, Price, Arlett, & Green, 1997).

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group on artificial ultraviolet (UV) light and skin cancer "The association of use of sunbeds with cutaneous malignant melanoma and other skin cancers: A systematic review." Int. J Cancer: 2007 March 1;120:1116-22.

Hema Sundaram, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
Hema Sundaram, M.D.

Hema Sundaram, M.D., is a dermatologist based in Fairfax, Virginia, who wrote about skincare for HealthCentral.