For years, a golden tan has infiltrated culture as a look that is not only attractive but supposedly healthy. While getting outside for some amount of time every day is crucial for health, we’ve also been told of the risks of too much sun exposure, whether it be skin cancer or premature aging of the skin.
For a time, tanning beds were sold as a healthier alternative to sitting in the sun and claimed to have fewer UV rays. Over time, flaws showed up in this theory, and now there is a lot of mixed information out there about whether or not a tanning bed is actually a safer alternative.
We took a closer look to find out the truth. Are tanning beds safe? What about in small amounts? What other options do you have if you don’t want to the health risks of a tanning bed?
If you’ve never tried a tanning bed and are curious about why anyone would even risk them if there are potential dangers, there are some benefits. They can often create a faster tan, and if you know the amount of time you need in a tanning bed, you can control your exposure more.
Many people find that tanning beds help eliminate some of their acne. Others like that you can get a full-body tan without tan lines, and without visiting a nude beach.
For others, the experience of a tanning bed can be relaxing. The warmth, the quiet, and the forced stillness can be somewhat like a spa treatment for those who enjoy baking in the sun or lying still. Of course, there is the obvious benefit of looking tan, whether you want to appear like you just got back from vacation or to show off a toned body.
These benefits are not entirely without risk.
Tanning beds or tanning stalls use UV light bulbs that emit UVA and UVB radiation, much like that of the sun, which forces your skin to produce melanin. Melanin is a pigment, made through a process called melanogenesis, to act as a shield to protect your body and skin from this radiation, which can be harmful in various ways.
The melanin is the substance in your skin that gives it the tan you are familiar with.
The bulbs in tanning beds occasionally need to be changed, like any lightbulb eventually does. When the lights are changed out, the new ones can be more powerful and do even quicker damage to your skin.
The trouble can arise when you go frequently, get used to a certain level, and then make another visit to the tanning salon, and the light affects your skin more than usual—sometimes causing burns. The danger does not stop there, though.
However, are tanning beds safe?
The early marketing of indoor tanning beds claimed to be less harsh on your skin than the sun, but are tanning beds safe? Tanning beds are labeled a Class One Carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) and are said to significantly increase your risk for skin cancer.
That means studies and proof have found there to be a direct link between the use of tanning beds and skin cancer development. Class One Carcinogens are the same category that cigarettes and arsenic fall into if that gives a further reference point.
They can increase your risk for all three types: basal cell, squamous cell, and malignant melanoma—the deadliest kind. Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocytes or melanin cells. Since tanning beds started being put to use, the incidence of melanoma has increased. So, are tanning beds safe? The short answer and long answer is, no.
Tanning beds can also harbor various forms of bacteria and viruses. Stand up tanning beds can be home to athlete’s foot fungus, and beds may not be cleaned correctly or thoroughly. The heat and moisture from bodies can make a pleasant home for some types of bacteria.
Unfortunately, tanning beds heat up while the bulbs are on, but not enough to kill bacteria and even some forms of sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes. The surface of the beds are not sterilized by the light or heat, and if the staff responsible for cleaning the beds do not disinfect them entirely (which is unlikely to happen, a quick wipe down is not enough to destroy the germs), disease-causing organisms can flourish.
Fecal bacteria, the herpes virus, papillomavirus (responsible for warts), and staphylococcus, which can be deadly, have all been tested and found living in tanning beds. When you think about the heat causing people to sweat in the tanning beds, it makes this recipe even more unappealing.
While tanning beds came with the propaganda in their earlier years that they had fewer ultraviolet rays than spending time in the sun, that is not actually true.
Tanning beds have an intense dose of UV rays in a short amount of time.
Furthermore, tanning beds expose you to both UVA and UVB radiation. Both of these types of UV rays are linked with several types of cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and even ocular melanoma, which is a form of eye cancer.
UVB radiation can cause faster sunburns than UVA rays, which may be part of the reason tanning beds initially received the hype of being “safer.” However, UVA radiation only causes burns once the exposure is excessively high.
So, if you’ve been in a tanning bed and come out slightly red, your UVA radiation could have been quite high—too high to be healthy.
UVA radiations also penetrate deep into the layers of your skin and can actually affect inner cells associated with immune response. The damage to these immune cells can further your risk of developing cancer such as melanoma.
Tanning beds are said to give you roughly the same amount of exposure of UVB radiation as the sun, but about 13 times more UVA radiation than the sun. So, not only is it a myth that they provide fewer rays than the sun, the opposite is actually the truth.
You would be better off outside than in a tanning bed.
Another myth behind tanning bed safety is that you burn less, so it must be safer. The reality is that you can still get a sunburn in a tanning bed. Even if you only tan, it is still a form of self-protection for your skin. When you tan, your skin is producing melanin to try to shield itself against rays.
A tan is UV damage to the DNA cells in your skin. This alternation to your DNA is what can mutate into cancer later. So, harm is still being done, and your skin is still fighting against UV rays when you use a tanning bed, even if you do not burn.
Even if the risk of cancer is not real enough to deter you, premature aging might be. A tan is not actually healthy, according to dermatologists. The barrier your skin is attempting to create to shield against UV radiation can cause permanent age spots, reduces the elasticity and suppleness of your skin. All of which in turn results in earlier sagging, wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots.
Just as there is solid proof that indoor tanning is linked with cancer and immune suppression, it is also scientifically linked with premature aging. This is one of those ironic twists, in which people tan to look better, but in the long run, end up looking worse.
It’s been found that if you use a tanning bed before the age of 35, you increase your lifetime risk of developing melanoma at some point by 75 percent. Obviously, that is a massive increase in the likelihood of potentially lethal cancer.
A less deadly yet still unfortunate aspect of using tanning beds when young is that of aging your skin. Are tanning beds safe, regardless of your age? No. However, many older individuals are already aware of the aging process and may take a bit more precaution once the reality of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots start to set in.
With most adolescents and people in their early twenties, aging often still seems like something too far in the future to worry about. This can result in more careless habits when it comes to tanning. The sense that aging won’t really happen to them can actually speed up the process of it happening and cause numerous health risks at the same time.
As the adage goes, everything in moderation. Well, does that same hold true for an indoor tan, are tanning beds safe in moderation? It is also estimated that even one experience in a tanning bed can increase your risk of getting melanoma by roughly 20 percent.
Many dermatologists say that there is no safe amount of tanning bed use. Sure, no guarantee exists that going to a tanning bed a few times will cause you to develop cancer, but the increase in risk is substantial. This may be one of those exceptions to the rule, that no amount, even if small, is truly safe.
Dermatologists seem to agree that the safest way to get a tan is by using sunless tanners. Sunless tanners are hypoallergenic and generally non-irritating. They do not protect your skin against sun damage if you go out in the sun without SPF but using a sunless tanner does not cause harm the way tanning beds do.
Sunless tanners, or self-tanner, are stains that give your skin the appearance of a tan or a “healthy glow” without the harm.
The beauty of self-tanners these days is that the cosmetics industry has put a lot of work into them over the years. Sunless tanners are now far superior to many of the versions that were on the market in decades prior.
The variety of self-tanners is also substantial now. There is a full spectrum of shades to choose from, whether you have very fair skin or dark tones. There are even self-tanners that have bases with varying tints to compliment all types of skin.
For example, in previous decades, people would often look somewhat orange with sunless tanners.
Many olive and violet-based tanners have since arrived on the market, which mimics an authentic skin tone in a tan shade for individuals with olive or cool undertones in their complexion. The good news is these actually work and look natural.
We tried one of these products on very fair, cool-toned skin (MineTan in dark violet), and it looked at genuine as a real tan from the sun. Another significant benefit? Hours spent working on a tan were not required. With self-tanners, you spend about 10 minutes applying them, and within a short amount of time, you have a noticeable tan.
There are also gradual tanners, which are ideal for those who worry about blotchiness or uneven spots.
You can control the color with some of these gradual tanners easier, applying a bit more or less to certain areas as each day passes. Some brands even make gradual tanners specifically for faces with SPF in them, many of which are also agreeable with acne-prone skin.
Not only are you not harming your skin by using these, you are actually protecting it.
There isn’t much to using sunless tanners, but a few tips will help you achieve a more even self-tan that will last longer. One crucial step is to exfoliate before applying self-tanner.
This will help prevent too much sunless tanner from absorbing in dry or flaky areas of your skin.
You can use exfoliating gloves or mitts in the shower, apply a body scrub all over, or even use an exfoliating/skin renewal lotion for a couple of days before applying self-tanner.
Make sure to pay special attention to spots such as elbows, knees, your Achilles tendon area, and other rough patches of skin. Exfoliate before putting on a self-tanner, and shave anywhere you usually shave beforehand, too.
Another fantastic invention in recent years when it comes to self-tanners is the application mitt. No matter how hard you would try to get a self-tanner evenly applied, doing so with your bare hands would almost always leave streaks or uneven marks in the past.
With sunless tanner mitts, the results are worlds apart. These microfiber mitts smooth the self-tanner on evenly and help prevent streaking and blotchiness.
If you haven’t tried this method yet, do yourself a favor and give it a shot. Mitts make the blending of self-tanners much easier.
Take care to avoid applying much sunless tanner to areas such as knees, elbows, and ankles. You also don’t want to put on a substantial amount to hands and feet. Some people will use a makeup brush to put on a very light layer over the tops of hands and feet, or you can gingerly sweep the mitt over these areas without adding any more product, just using the residual tanner from applying it to the rest of your body.
Tips for applying self-tanner:
When your sunless tan begins to wear off, you can use exfoliating shower gloves or a body scrub to help remove the rest of it.
Applying either white vinegar or rubbing alcohol, believe it or not, will also remove a sunless tan. Wet the area with one or the other—not both—let sit for a minute or two and shower it off.
There is no real way around it, tanning beds are not safe for your skin, they are linked to cancer and suppressed immune cells, and cause premature aging. With all of the new sunless tanning products that now look natural and streak-free, there generally is no need to spend time baking under UV bulbs.
With a little practice, you can get down the application process of sunless tanners in a way that not only saves your time spent in a tanning booth but also saves your skin—and maybe even your life. A single visit to a tanning bed is not likely to kill you, but one visit also won’t do much for a tan. The repetitive use of a tanning bed increases your risk, and the result just isn’t worth it.
Try out some sunless tanners before your next trip to the beach to get used to them. Then you’ll be tanned for your next day at the beach, and your skin will be healthier in the process. Don’t forget to bring the SPF, too!