Why You May Want to
Avoid Tanning Salons

By Diane Bryan 

Despite the 2009 declaration of the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that tanning beds are "carcinogenic to humans," approximately 28 million Americans continue to go to tanning salons each year, making it a business that earns $5 billion annually. I know several people who like tanning salons. They'll visit one before they go on vacation, or when summer begins, because they refuse to put on a bathing suit or shorts until they have their "starter" tan. Some people will use tanning beds occasionally during the winter once their summer tan has faded. They’ve shared with me, “I just don’t think I look good unless I have some color on my face and body.” I know women who rush to the tanning salon before they go on a first date. They’ve been persuaded, by some subliminal message our society has given them, that men do not find naturally pale women desirable.

Then there are the people who actually become severely addicted to having a year-round tan, and will use tanning beds so often that their skin becomes orangey, leathery, and appears strange to everyone who sees them. Their friends and family may comment that it's time to cut back on the tanning, but these men and women aren't interested in anyone's opinion. They're totally convinced that the unnatural color of their constantly-tanned skin makes them look their best, and they even believe they feel healthier when they are deeply tanned.

Unfortunately, most people tune me out when I attempt to tell them that it’s actually healthier for them to avoid tanning salons, and if they really have to have a tan, to try one of the many natural looking self-tanning products available today, or get a professionally applied spray tan. Below are some of the reasons why the majority of health care professionals in this country join me in warning people not to use tanning beds:

• The bulbs used in tanning beds can be two to three times more intense than natural sunlight.  Ten minutes on a tanning bed can be the equivalent to 30 minutes in the hot sun. As indoor tanning became more and more popular, beginning in the 1980s, physicians began to notice that cases of melanoma were increasing in young women, and they also began to see melanoma appearing on areas of the body that normally would not be exposed to the sun, but are exposed to tanning bed lamps. Melanoma is the deadly form of skin cancer that spreads rapidly through the blood and lymph systems to the bones and organs. Today, based on approximately 20 international studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer warns that people who use tanning beds before age 30 can increase their risk of getting melanoma by 75%.  The rest of the population can increase their risk by 20%.

• Scientists believe that the majority of us are deficient in Vitamin D, and visiting the neighborhood tanning salon to replenish Vitamin D levels has become the latest excuse to get a tan. In order for tanning beds to help our bodies manufacture Vitamin D, the bulbs must be predominantly Ultraviolet B (UVB).  But most commercial tanning beds use much higher levels of Ultraviolet A rays (UVA).  Usually the ratio is 95% UVA rays to 5% UVB rays. And such low levels of UVB rays make commercial tanning beds ineffective when it comes to the production of optimal levels of Vitamin D. Tanning salons don’t consider UVB rays to be desirable because they have a short wavelength and can cause a sunburn very quickly. 

• UVA rays are preferred by commercial tanning salons because their longer wavelength results in less burning and the desired golden brown tan. But they are also much more damaging to the skin.  Their longer wavelength goes deeper into the skin and it can damage collagen and elastin fibers, cause premature aging, skin cancer, the loss of elasticity, wrinkling, brown spots, broken blood vessels, and a leathery texture. 

• The intensity of the radiation coming from tanning beds is much more dangerous than the radiation you receive when you sit outside in the sun. Exposure to such high levels of ultraviolet A rays can suppress your immune system. That means your body is going to have a hard time fighting off illness. The DNA in your body may also mutate, causing cancer cells to develop.

• Lowered immunity, mutating DNA--this can result in the occurrence of skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma. Recently, scientists have found clear links between several genes and the risk of melanoma. Also, if one of your parents has had the disease, you could have a greater chance of getting it too.

• Yearly, around 48,000 people in the world die of melanoma. Some scientists think that one major reason for the increase in this disease is Vitamin D deficiency. Also, more people today go on vacation than they did in the past. They bask in the sun, often on a cruise ship, or by the water, for a week or more. Intense exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, especially UVA rays, during a short period is considered to be much more dangerous than our normal daily exposure. Please do not ignore that tanning beds also cause you to receive intense exposure to UVA rays during a short period.

• If you have herpes simplex virus, too much sunlight and the use of tanning beds can actually compromise your immune system, so much that it will be unable to keep the virus under control. This is a virus that can hibernate beneath the skin's surface and can be awakened by sunlight, illness, or stress. Also, UV rays can further weaken the skin of an area previously infected with herpes simplex virus, making it easier for re-infection to occur. According to recent medical research, many people who get cold sores, a result of the herpes simplex virus, are low in vitamin B12 or have a calcium deficiency.

• The use of tanning beds also suppresses the skin's natural defenses.

• Over-exposure to UV radiation can diminish the effects of vaccinations.

• Tanning beds can cause burns.

• Just one tanning session can make your skin feel dry and itchy.

• The UV radiation from tanning beds can do some serious harm to your eyes. It can damage the cornea, the lens, and the retina. You can develop cataracts. Photokeratitis can also occur—a sunburn of the cornea. Symptoms are swollen eyelids, pain, redness, headache, seeing halos around lights, tearing, blurred vision, losing vision temporarily, a feeling of having sand in the eye. It can take up to 12 hours for these symptoms to appear after using a tanning bed.  The goggles people are supposed to wear when tanning are not going to give adequate protection.

• Tanning beds can cause cosmetic and drug induced photosensitivity. This means that a cosmetic you use, or a prescription or over-the-counter drug you take, has made your skin extra sensitive to UV rays. You may get a surprise reaction after using a tanning bed.

• Because tanning beds are not always cleaned properly you can easily catch a bacterial infection from them. Some can be life-threatening. Dangerous bacteria that land people in the hospital, like E-Coli and Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), are often found on the surfaces of tanning beds.

• The majority of commercial tanning beds use magnetic ballasts to generate light.  These ballasts create electromagnetic fields (EMFs) which scientists believe can cause cancer.  Safer electronic ballasts are available but are not widely used. 

• We can’t be certain that our exposure today to the Ultraviolet A rays and electromagnetic fields of commercial tanning beds won’t result in the development of serious health problems for us in the future.

• There are also a small number of doctors in this country, concerned with what they see as a growing Vitamin D deficiency pandemic, who advocate the use of “safer” tanning beds. These tanning beds emit UVB rays, use electronic ballasts, and most appear to be sold for home use only.  This has become a hugely controversial subject in the medical community, with several doctors using the media to issue strict warnings that all tanning beds are dangerous, currently come with too many known and unknown risks, and none should ever be used as a method for increasing the body’s Vitamin D levels. 

• And finally, pubic lice, also known as crabs, have been found on the surfaces of tanning beds. They aren't easily killed by cleaning agents used on tanning beds.

Now you know why I have a hard time remaining silent when people tell me they are heading for the tanning salon.

Copyright 2013 by Diane Bryan