Despite the 2009 declaration of the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that tanning beds are "carcinogenic to humans," approximately 28 million Americans continue to go to tanning salons each year, making it a business that earns $5 billion annually. Women and men have shared with me a variety of reasons why they spend their money at tanning salons. Some will visit one before they go on vacation, or when summer begins, because they refuse to put on a bathing suit or shorts until they have their "starter" tan. Many people like to use tanning beds occasionally during the winter, once their summer tan has faded, because "I don't think I look good unless I have some color on my face and body." With scientists warning that we now have a worldwide Vitamin D deficiency epidemic, another reason people are visiting tanning salons is the possibility that it might help them replenish their body's Vitamin D supply.
Then there are the people who actually become severely addicted to having a year-round tan, and will use tanning beds so often that their skin becomes orangey and leathery. Their friends and family may comment that it's time to cut back on the tanning, but these men and women aren't interested in anyone's opinion. They're totally convinced that the unnatural color of their constantly-tanned skin makes them look their best, and they even believe they feel healthier when they are deeply tanned.
Unfortunately, most people tune me out when I attempt to tell them that it's actually healthier for them to avoid tanning salons, and if they really have to have a tan, to try one of the many natural looking self-tanning products available today. I used to recommend a professionally applied spray tan, but now I am reading that the chemical used in that process, Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), if inhaled, can enter the lungs and get absorbed into the bloodstream. It could cause inflammation of the lungs, even a serious condition known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). To be safe, if you do decide to get a spray tan, hold your breath while being sprayed, keep your lips tightly together, and your eyes closed.
Below are some of the reasons why the majority of health care professionals in this country join me in warning people not to use tanning beds:
1. The bulbs used in tanning beds can be two to three times more intense than natural sunlight. Ten minutes on a tanning bed can be the equivalent to 30 minutes in the hot sun. As indoor tanning became more and more popular, beginning in the 1980s, physicians began to notice that cases of melanoma were increasing in young women, and they also began to see melanoma appearing on areas of the body that normally would not be exposed to the sun, but are exposed to tanning bed lamps. Melanoma is the deadly form of skin cancer that spreads rapidly through the blood and lymph systems to the bones and organs. Today, based on approximately 20 international studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer warns that people who use tanning beds before age 30 can increase their risk of getting melanoma by 75%. The rest of the population can increase their risk by 20%.
2. Ultraviolet A rays (UVA) are preferred by commercial tanning salons because their longer wavelength results in less burning and the desired golden brown tan. But this longer wavelength is also much more damaging. Because it goes deeper into the skin, it can do serious harm to collagen and elastin fibers, cause premature aging, skin cancer, the loss of elasticity, wrinkling, brown spots, broken blood vessels, and a leathery texture.
3. Since Vitamin D deficiency is so common today, many men and women are visiting the neighborhood tanning salon with the objective of raising their Vitamin D levels. It's the Ultraviolet B rays (UVB) of the sun that help our bodies manufacture Vitamin D. But most commercial tanning beds use much higher levels of the dangerous Ultraviolet A rays (UVA) which play no part in the Vitamin D process. Usually the ratio is 95% UVA rays to 5% UVB rays. Tanning salons don't consider UVB rays to be desirable because they have a short wavelength and can cause a sunburn very quickly.
4. The intensity of the radiation coming from tanning beds is much more dangerous than the radiation you receive when you sit outside in the sun. Exposure to such high levels of ultraviolet A rays can suppress your immune system. That means your body is going to have a hard time fighting off illness. The DNA in your body may also mutate, causing cancer cells to develop.