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Inside of a tanning bed in use.

Tanning: Healthy glow or dangerous habit?

by Abigail Thorpe
May 22, 2014


Courtesy of Creative Commons. Photo by Beax.

Stand-up tanning bed

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Centers For Disease Control and Prevention

Skin cancer alertsr

It's important to check skin regularly for signs of cancer. New growths, spots, bumps patches or sores that don't heal quickly can all be signs of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends using the ABCDE rule when performing a self-examination.

A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
C is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
E is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

With warm weather uncertain this spring, tanning salons are the answer for many seeking a healthy glow. More and more people are heading to the tanning bed. But many health professionals advise that indoor and outdoor tanning leads to increased risks for skin cancer, particularly among young women.
“I’m seeing a shift with younger and younger patients developing skin cancer,” said Dr. Julie Karen of Complete Skin MD in New York. “Nowhere in the equation should we be encouraging young women to visit a tanning salon.”

“Melanoma rates have been on the rise in the U.S. for the past 30 years. It is the most common form of skin cancer in young adults age 25 to 29, and the second most common even starting in the teen years at 15. The rates are especially still increasing in young women,” said Dr. Jessica Krant of Art of Dermatology in New York City.

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and can spread to the brain, lungs and other organs if untreated. Other forms of less serious skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which can also become dangerous if left untreated. Moles and off-color skin patches should be checked by a doctor. 

But many tanning salons advocate indoor tanning on their websites as a means of protection, arguing the merits of receiving a carefully monitored base tan that will leave people looking healthy and more protected from outdoor rays.

“Tan is your body’s way of telling you it’s injured,” it’s not a sign of skin health, said Karen. According to Dr. Carolyn Jacob, “any sun exposure can cause damage in the long run.” It is cumulative tanning that becomes the most dangerous, however.

Sunscreen can help protect the skin to a degree. An SPF 15 sunscreen (with a sun protection factor of 15) or higher is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ninety percent of the visual signs of aging are the result of sun exposure, and 65 percent of skin cancer is caused by UV rays, said Karen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who begin tanning younger than age 35 have a 59 percent higher risk of contracting melanoma than people who don't tan.

Tanning salons promote indoor tanning as a means of receiving vitamin D. Indoor tanning releases mostly UVA rays, which penetrate farther into the skin but don’t result in as much burn as UVB rays. However, vitamin D production can only result from exposure to UVB rays.

UVA rays are typically considered the “safe” rays, but “both types of rays damage the skin’s cellular DNA, leading to damaged cellular messaging, cancer and faster aging. There are no such thing as ‘safe’ tanning beds,” said Krant.

Outdoor tanning can be just as dangerous and damaging to the skin as indoor, she said. “They are both equally as harmful. Each can hurt you in different ways. Outdoor excessive sun exposure can happen when you underestimate the amount of protection needed, and any indoor UV exposure is considered to be more than a safe amount,” said Krant.

But while dermatologists like Krant and the CDC encourage reducing sun exposure and learning to love your natural skin tone, boosting vitamin D deficiencies with supplements, tanning advocates see the sun as the best way of getting your vitamin D requirements.