Our Own Skin: The Truth About Tanning

A recent study showed that individuals who had ever used indoor tanning beds had a 74 percent higher chance of developing melanoma compared to “never-users.”


Want a “healthy tan”? Increasingly, research suggests this popular warm weather quest is just a mirage. Tanning is not healthy at all.

For more than 10 years, we have known that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UVR) causes skin cancer, including melanoma, which is responsible for 80 percent of skin cancer deaths. We can all protect ourselves from the harmful effects of the sun by minimizing our midday sun exposure, wearing protective clothing including hats and sunglasses, applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) greater than 15 before going outdoors, and reapplying sunscreen every two hours. Sunscreen is safe to use on children six months or older.

More recently, artificial sources of UVR, such as indoor tanning beds, have also been shown to cause skin cancer. A recent study showed that individuals who had ever used indoor tanning beds had a 74 percent higher chance of developing melanoma compared to “never-users.” This risk for developing skin cancer increases with increased tanning bed use. Researchers also found that none of the tanning devices were safe. 

The World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorized tanning beds as carcinogenic to humans.

Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe the health and safety claims commonly touted by the indoor tanning industry. The truth is there are no health benefits to indoor tanning that outweigh the health risks. Indoor tanning devices are neither safe nor effective sources of Vitamin D. A “pre-vacation” or “base” tan from a tanning bed is only equivalent to a SPF of 3 which offers virtually no protection against sunburns or skin cancer. Claims that a “controlled” indoor tan is safer than an “uncontrolled” beach tan are not scientifically supported.

In fact, studies have shown that teenagers and young adults who used tanning beds before age 35 were even more likely to develop melanoma than those who did not. Not surprisingly, health experts have called for laws limiting teenagers’ access to indoor tanning. California and Vermont recently prohibited tanning salons from serving minors. A similar bill banning indoor tanning for children under sixteen years old has been introduced in Massachusetts.

Is there a good alternative to achieving a “healthy tan?” Many people use sunless tanning creams or sprays, which impart color to your skin without the harmful UVR exposure of sun bathing or indoortanning. Recent media attention, though, has highlighted the uncertain safety of one common active ingredient in sunless tanning products, dihydroxyacetone or DHA. DHA has not caused cancer when tested on animals, but this chemical has caused DNA mutations in cultured skin cells. And because DHA in spray tans could easily be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through moist membranes, the FDA has not approved it for use as a spray. 

The Boston Public Health Commission, as part of a public education campaign, will begin checking salons offering DHA-based spray tans in Boston for the recommended equipment to protect both salon clients and workers.

At home, I recently overheard a conversation between my 8-year-old and 5-year-old sons. One was born with my darker complexion; the other inherited my wife’s fairer skin. Each boy touted the beauty of his own natural skin tone. It sounded funny to me at the time, but perhaps this was wisdom from the mouths of children. In our quest for wellness, we all should forsake the illusion of a “healthy tan” and, instead, become a little more comfortable in our own skin. 

Dr. Huy Nguyen is the medical director at the Boston Public Health Commission and a pediatrician at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center.


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