5 Tanning Bed Lies That Could Kill Your Skin

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You may think getting a tan from a tanning bed is safer for your skin than a tan from the sun, or that an indoor tan is a great way to boost vitamin D levels. As is turns out, indoor tanning is mostly a great way to damage your skin and a tan is direct evidence of that damage!
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Fry Now, Pay Later

Not too long ago, "Fry now, pay later" was the slogan for an advertising campaign describing the dangers of unprotected sun exposure and, especially, of using tanning beds. That message beautifully summed up the conclusions from abundant research showing what the 30 million people in the United States who routinely use tanning beds can potentially expect. (Many physicians describe tanning beds, more accurately, as "skin cancer beds.") Even if you don't get skin cancer, tanning of any kind, whether from the sun or from a tanning bed, whether frequent or not, causes cumulative damage that leads to skin changes you're likely going to regret later in life:

  • Wrinkles
  • Loss of firmness
  • Thinning, sagging skin
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Redness, broken capillaries, and rough texture
  • Brown spots and other patchy discolorations

Research shows that all of the symptoms listed above can result from tanning, and that they can be significantly reduced if you stop tanning, from the sun or from tanning beds—now! It's never too late to begin protecting your skin from further damage!

Returning to the issue of skin cancer—it's shocking to report that UV radiation from indoor tanning is associated with a 75% increase in melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer. The World Health Organization classifies UV radiation as a carcinogen, whether it's from the sun or from tanning beds. And yet, people continue to do it!

Many women think that tanning beds are safer than tanning in the sun, and the Indoor Tanning Association (a pro-tan organization) readily supports that belief. But the truth is, most of the positive information you hear about tanning beds and other types of indoor tanning is lies, or at the very least misleading information. We've gathered the five biggest lies that appear in advertisements for tanning salons and now we give you the research-supported facts you need to save your skin from pain and suffering later.

Lie #1: The UV light from tanning beds is safer than the UV light from the sun.

Truth: The UV light emitted from bulbs in tanning beds is composed primarily of UVA radiation because that is what causes you to tan. Although it's the sun's UVB rays that cause sunburn, it's the UVA rays, from the sun and from tanning bulbs, that are much more insidious and damaging to your skin. UVA rays are mutagenic, which means they destroy or alter the cellular DNA, which in turn causes abnormal cells to be produced. The UVA rays also penetrate much deeper into the skin than UVB rays, so the damage runs deep.

In addition, now there is new research showing that UVA exposure is even more damaging than we once thought. It seems that when UVA radiation hits the skin, it not only penetrates into the lower layers (where it destroys collagen and elastin, and affects the cells' DNA), but also "bounces back," like light reflecting from a mirror, giving every layer of your skin a double-whammy of damage. UVA radiation does prompt tanning, but any tan you see is direct evidence of your skin's response to the onslaught of the damage it has just endured. Let us say it again: Any color change to your skin is a sign it has been damaged—and skin has a long memory when it comes to the damage caused by UVA radiation. In fact, the damage is cumulative, it just keeps building up with each exposure. It's a fact: The more you tan, whether indoors or out, the worse your skin will look as you age (even though you may love how your tan looks now).

Lie #2: Tanning beds stimulate the body to produce vitamin D.

Truth: Almost all tanning beds or booths emit UVA radiation—the kind of radiation that causes skin to tan, not burn—but it's actually the UVB radiation that stimulates vitamin D production in the body. That means that the radiation from tanning beds is, at best, only minimally effective in promoting vitamin D production. But, even if that weren't the case, doing something harmful to your skin (tanning) to get something positive (vitamin D) is bad advice. It's like saying cigarette smoking is relaxing, so it's worth the risk of lung cancer or emphysema—really? Without question, you're better off getting your vitamin D from fortified foods or supplements than from the sun's damaging rays, and it's sobering to realize that you can't get sufficient vitamin D from a tanning bed.

Lie #3: Sunburn causes skin cancer, not tanning.

Truth: As mentioned in Lie #1, any color change in your skin from exposure to UV radiation is a sign your skin has been damaged. Both UVA and UVB radiation cause mutations to cellular DNA, leading to skin cells that malfunction, cannot repair themselves, and are unable to form new cells correctly—all leading to changes you'll see when you look in the mirror over the years to come. Tanning indoors is especially bad because of your skin's proximity to the radiation source. At such close range, you get a potent dose of UVA radiation that prompts inflammation throughout the body—despite the fact that only hours later you may be marveling at your wonderful tan.

You may have heard that getting a few bad sunburns as a child increases a person's risk of skin cancer. That is true, but it's also true that even those who always tan and never burn also get skin cancer. The real risk of developing skin cancer is directly related to cumulative exposure to UV radiation; it is not simply a matter of whether your skin burns or tans, whether you only expose your skin to UVA rays from tanning beds, or whether you have light or dark skin. Study after study shows that people who use tanning beds are at greater risk for skin cancer, whether they burn or, as is more often the case, tan.

Lie #4: Tanning beds boost your mood and relieve depression.

Truth: Many people report that their mood is lifted after a session at the tanning salon, but then many people who smoke cigarettes report feeling better after having one. In both cases, trading one serious problem for another is a fool's game that solves nothing.

Almost every medical expert in the world agrees that there are better, safer, and less expensive ways than tanning for people to boost their mood. Examples include daily exercise, meditation, yoga, eating a healthy diet rich in plant foods and omega-3 fatty acids, and many others, all of which can help relieve the symptoms of depression, improve your overall health, and reduce the risk of disease, and all without putting your skin at risk of pronounced signs of aging and skin cancer.

Lie #5: It's safe to use tanning beds if you apply sunscreen or "protective" tanning oils.

Truth: Sorry, this just isn't the case. Although applying a well-formulated sunscreen before using a tanning bed helps reduce the damage, it doesn't stop the assault—any amount of tanning is just your skin telling you it's being seriously injured. There is also the issue that tanning beds hit you with concentrated UVA radiation, just inches away from your skin, whereas sun exposure outside is diffused and less intense, although that doesn't negate the cumulative damage caused over time and the critical need for sunscreen and being sun smart.

As for tanning oils—they may spare your skin the drying effects from exposure to UV radiation, but they don't offer a shred of sun protection. Let us be clear: Tanning oils are not protective! They merely provide you with a false sense of security, which may induce you to spend more time in the tanning bed, which in turn only increases your risk for all of the problems that result from UVA radiation.

What it comes down to is this: The only safe tan is one you get from a bottle of self-tanner. There is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan from the sun or from tanning beds. The Indoor Tanning Association works hard to convince you otherwise, that nothing could be better than relaxing in an indoor tanning bed, but believing the lies about indoor tanning is asking for numerous negative effects to your skin's health and, eventually, to an appearance that no one wants. (When was the last time you heard someone exclaim that they can't wait for wrinkles and brown spots to show up?) You may not see the damage now (and you might love being tan), but the damage will show up eventually—and that's the sad truth about tanning, whether from the sun or from tanning beds.

Learn more about what the sun is doing to your skin and how you can prevent it. See our sunscreen infographic.

Sources for the information above: Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, December 2011, pages 222–228; Happi, November 2011, page 34; Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, July 2011, pages 453–458; Journal of Investigative Dermatology, July 2011, pages 1539–1546; Dermatologic Clinics, April 2009, pages 149–154; British Journal of Dermatology, December 2010, pages 1269–1275; Cancer Management and Research, October 2010, pages 277–282; Dermatologic Therapy, January-February 2010, pages 61–71; and International Journal of Epidemiology, December 2006, pages 1514–1521.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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