Are Tanning Beds Safe?

June 2024

Why You Should Skip the Tanning Bed and Try These Alternatives

Being summer-ready has historically also meant having bronzed, sun-kissed skin to show off at the beach on your vacation. There is an entire industry around getting tan, and a big player in that space is the tanning bed. But if you’re thinking of using one, you should first ask yourself: are tanning beds safe? 

The short answer is no – tanning beds aren’t safe for your skin. In this post, we’ll explain why they’re unsafe, and what you should know about them, and we’ll provide some great alternatives so you can achieve that tanned look without putting your skin in danger.

Debunking Tanning Bed Myths

There’s a lot of marketing around tanning bed use that doesn’t mention the significant health risks it poses. Here are 5 myths about tanning beds – and the truth may surprise you!

Myth 1: Tanning beds are safer than the sun. 

Tanning beds have long been billed as an easy and effective way to get tan, and have even been falsely heralded as safer than the sun. 

But tanning beds emit levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that are just as or more intense than the sun, making a tanning bed’s effect on the skin worse than sun exposure. UVA rays from tanning beds can be three times more intense than from natural sunlight, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reports that tanning beds can increase the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 58% and basal cell carcinoma by 24% – and using tanning beds before age 20 increases the risk of developing melanoma by 47%. 

Myth 2: Getting a “base tan” from a tanning bed reduces the risk of sunburn. 

One or two tanning bed sessions to get a “base tan” will not only have zero impact on whether you get a sunburn (you can still get a sunburn even with a deep tan), but it’s no safer for your skin than being exposed to natural sunlight. 

Myth 3: Tanning beds help your skin produce more Vitamin D. 

The body produces Vitamin D in response to UVB light, but tanning beds emit mostly UVA light, therefore having no impact on your levels of Vitamin D. The best way to get it is through your diet by eating foods rich in Vitamin D, which is far more effective than UV radiation exposure. 

Myth 4: You can’t become addicted to tanning. 

The Skin Cancer Foundation reports there is evidence tanning can be addicting; 20% of women who took part in a Georgetown University Medical Center study showed signs of tanning dependence. Exposure to UV light has addictive qualities as it causes the release of mood-boosting endorphins, which then fade once the tanning session is over and can lead to feelings of depression or sadness.

Myth 5: There aren’t any serious risks associated with tanning beds.

Aside from the very serious risk of developing skin cancer, tanning beds can lead to other health concerns or injuries, including burns, premature skin aging, immune suppression, and eye damage such as cataracts and ocular melanoma.

Safer Alternatives to Tanning Beds

Sunless tanning options like spray tan or self-tanner leave your skin looking tan without the dangerous UV radiation exposure. 

One reason tanning beds are popular is that people believe they can’t get an even tan any other way. However, that’s simply not true.

When applied correctly, spray tans or self tanner look even and natural and won’t leave any splotchy, streaky, orange-hued coloration.

There are also a handful of additional benefits to choosing sunless tanner over tanning beds (or tanning in natural sunlight). 

  • Preserve your skin. UV radiation can cause your skin to become leathery and more wrinkled over time. 
  • Prevent pre-cancerous growths. Exposure to UV radiation can also cause pre-cancerous growths called Actinic Keratosis, or AK. These growths must be tested to rule out cancer and put you at higher risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Conceal stretch marks. Contrary to popular belief, sunless tanning options actually do a better job of covering up stretch marks – tanning beds can make them more noticeable.
  • Save time and money. This may be a basic argument against tanning bed use, but it’s not an incorrect one. Tanning beds can be expensive and require multiple uses to achieve a tan, whereas sunless tanner can last several days before fading with just a single application. 

Tanning Bed Risks Have Caught Lawmakers’ Attention

Because of the data showing increased risks of skin cancer associated with tanning bed use, especially for youth under the age of 20, many states have banned minors from using tanning beds. 

Jamie Piacentini, a board-certified nurse practitioner at Optima Dermatology’s Scarborough, ME practice, was instrumental in the passing of legislation in 2019 that restricts minors under the age of 18 from using tanning beds in the state of Maine. Piacentini is passionate about creating awareness and taking action around the risks of tanning bed use for anyone, but especially minors.   

The U.S. House of Representatives has also become involved in advocating for more upfront and clear language around the risks of tanning bed use. 

This awareness and action comes on the heels of a legislative committee study that interviewed staff at different tanning salons. 90% of staff questioned about safety risks were not truthful, with some saying there were health benefits associated with using tanning beds and no increased risk for a fair-skinned teenager.

In fact, individuals under the age of 30 are six times more likely to develop melanoma from tanning bed use – and skin cancer becomes more likely if an individual has already sustained a sunburn in their lifetime. 

The Bottom Line: Tanning Beds Aren’t Safe

If having tan skin in the summer months or year-round is important to you, sunless tanners like spray tanning and self tanner are great alternatives to tanning beds that keep your skin safe from UV radiation. 

The risks of UV exposure are too great to take chances, especially if you’re under 20. Keep your skin healthy and glowing for longer and stay out of the sun’s harmful rays. And if you’ve already used a tanning bed, you can still protect your skin from developing skin cancer by stopping and switching to a sunless tanning option. And don’t forget to use sunscreen – spray tans and self tanner don’t provide any protection from the sun, and whether you’re tan or not, sunscreen is the only way to prevent sunburn, sun damage, and skin cancer. 

If you’d like product recommendations, have questions about your skin health, or just want a skin check, contact us today to set up an appointment with a provider in your area.