CURExtra - The Hidden Dangers of Tanning Salons

Many people, especially young adults and teens, are unaware of the dangers of indoor tanning beds and that they give off UV light, just like the sun, and can cause skin cancer.

If you’re looking to get a little color for your skin before the summer, tanning salons are not what the doctor ordered. Tanning beds give off ultraviolet (UV) light, which can cause your skin to tan, but can also give you wrinkles and skin cancer.

“Indoor tanning mimics natural sunlight,” says James Spencer, MD, professor of clinical dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “But the tanning parlor is more efficient and you get the exposure faster.”

The sun gives off different types of radiation. The main types are UVA and UVB. Both cause damage to the skin. “Natural sunlight is 95 percent UVA rays and 5 percent UVB,” explains Spencer. “Tanning salons give off the same UV light, so when people go to get a cosmetic tan, they may not realize the same rays can cause skin cancer.”

Despite the dangers, young people are flocking to indoor tanning beds, especially young women. Studies continue to show that young people ignore their risk of skin cancer and use tanning beds as a way to accelerate their tan. One study from the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis revealed that almost half the students polled had used a tanning lamp during the previous year. And women were much more likely to do so than men.

The statistics are startling especially because skin cancer is the most common cancer among men and women in the United States, and melanoma, the deadliest type, is the most common cancer in women between the ages of 25 and 29.

Young people need to be aware of their risks. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18. Regular use of tanning beds increases the chance of getting skin cancer.

Unfortunately, pressure to tan continues to be high for young people. Advertisements for tanning salons were found in nearly 50 percent of public high schools newspapers in a small Colorado study. Because of the link between tanning and skin cancer, the authors of the study say it might be advisable to ban such advertisements, especially in publications targeted at teens.

You can take steps to protect yourself from the dangers of UV radiation. Most dermatologists discourage the use of tanning salons. If you have your mind set on a tan, self-tanning cream is a safer option. And the use of sunscreen is always recommended.

“Self-tanning cream is basically a dye and is perfectly safe,” says Spencer. “These types of dyes have been used in food for years.” Just because your skin looks tan, it is not protected from the sun, however. Make sure to apply sunblock in addition to the self-tanner.

The American Academy of Dermatology issues several recommendations in order to cut down the risk of skin cancer which include: avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest; apply sunscreen with a sun protective factor or SPF of 15 or higher; and wear protective clothing and a hat in the sun.

Some people are confused over the difference in SPF in sunscreen. “The truth is that the number is less important than how much you apply and how often you apply it,” says Spencer. “Anything over 15 is fine; you just need to put a lot on every two to four hours.”

Watch for the upcoming feature on nonmelanoma skin cancer in the Summer 2006 issue of CURE.