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The American Cancer Society

The Verdict Is In: Tanning Beds Cause Cancer

by Dr. Len July 28, 2009

A new report released today by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is short, sweet and to the point: tanning devices are a Class I cause of cancer in humans.


The report, which was published in Lancet Oncology, reviews the cancer causing effects of various types of radiation, is bound to create more controversy regarding the use of tanning beds, especially in young women who are probably the most prolific users of these devices.


The reality is that the issue is no longer controversial.  Tanning beds cause cancer.  No tanning bed is safe, and there is no excuse or reason to use one.


As noted in the report, there are various types of solar—or sun related—radiation.  Many of us are familiar with UVB radiation from the sun, and that is the type that for years was the main target of the many sunscreens available in the marketplace.


More recently, increased attention has been paid to UVA radiation, but it wasn’t quite as clear that this type of sun related radiation caused cancer.  Now, as the evidence begins to accumulate, it is becoming clearer that UVA radiation also causes skin cancer.


The problem has been that the tanning bed folks have been claiming that tanning beds are “safe” because the bulbs they use are much more UVA than UVB.


But the IARC report does away with that argument.  As the scientists noted in the report, the same of precancerous changes that have been seen in UVB induced skin changes have now also been found in UVA exposed skin. (There is also UVC radiation, but that is absorbed in the atmosphere, so we are not exposed to it like we are to UVA and UVB.)


The net result is that solar radiation has been linked to all forms of skin cancer, but this has been thought in the past to be due to UVB radiation.  The report now connects UVA to the same effect, thus linking this form of radiation to all types of skin cancer as well.


There are several forms of skin cancer.  The most common ones—basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers—account for well over 1 million cases of skin cancer every year.  These forms of cancer are considered less serious, since they tend to be cured with a simple or sometimes more complex excision.  Occasionally, however, they can be large and treatment can be disfiguring, and some times they can spread to other parts of the body.


On the other hand, the third type of skin cancer, called melanoma, can be very serious and unfortunately too frequently can be deadly.  This type of cancer can also be frequently cured if found early, but too often it can spread throughout the body and lead to death.  Sometimes, even very small lesions can act very aggressively for reasons that we do not understand. 


In 2009, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 68,720 invasive melanomas diagnosed in the United States, with the majority of these in men.  8650 men and women in the United States will die from melanoma.  Again, the majority of these deaths will occur in men.  There will also be 53,120 non-invasive melanomas diagnosed in this country in 2009.


The sad story, however, is that some of these melanomas will occur in young women.


As noted in the IARC report, the risk of melanoma is increased 75% in those people who start using tanning beds before the age of 30.


We all know young people—especially young women—who think that having a tan is “cool” or “sexy” or whatever word is in fashion at the moment.  They get tans for the prom, they get “base tans” before going to the beach in the false belief this will protect their skin.


Now we have the evidence that those tans are not safe at all, and can have deadly consequences.  The tanning beds themselves are now Class I cancer causing agents—just like cigarettes.


There have been others who have promoted tanning beds for a variety of health reasons, including getting adequate vitamin D.  Once again, there are safe alternatives—namely various fortified foods and over the counter vitamins and oral forms of vitamin D3 which are a heck of a lot safer than going to a cancer-causing tanning salon.


This IARC report is bound to give new impetus to those who want to restrict tanning bed usage in young people, and even ban them altogether.  Various states are considering laws to do just that.  Classifying tanning beds as a Class I carcinogen may just get the job done once and for all.


The report also links tanning beds to a rare but no-less-deadly form of melanoma that occurs in the eye, called ocular melanoma.


So what should you do?


The bottom line is that you should engage in sun safe behaviors.  Being in the sun is—truth be told—part of a healthy lifestyle.  Mind you, that’s not because of the sun, but because being outside and getting exercise is good for you.  But when you are outside for any length of time, you should practice sun-safe behaviors.


We have a phrase that’s simple to remember: Slip, Slop, Slap.  The translation:  Slip on a shirt (preferably one that is dark colored to absorb more of the sun’s harmful rays), slop on the sunscreen (a palmful applied regularly will do the trick) and slap on a (wide brimmed) hat.  And, while you’re at it, put on a pair of UV-protective sunglasses.  We should also note that children should be especially careful, since getting a sunburn at a young age is a significant risk factor for developing melanoma later in life.


Although we have been cautioning people about the risk of tanning beds for sometime, this new IARC report raises the bar and sounds a more shrill alarm.  Tanning beds cause cancer, and there is no longer any legitimate excuse to allow their use, especially for the most vulnerable young people who think they will live forever despite risky behaviors.


The risk of skin cancer from tanning beds—according to IARC—has just become a lot more risky.  It’s time to say good-bye to the myth that they are healthy for you and your skin. 


Filed Under:

Other cancers | Prevention


7/29/2009 12:17:01 PM #

Domenick Casuccio

I laid in tanning beds all through high school because everyone else was doing it.  I didn't particularly think tan was cool but peer pressure took its toll and I tanned year around for 6 years.  In 2000, I was diagnosed with a Level 2 melanoma which was caught fairly early so I had surgery but avoided chemotherapy and radiation.  Today, I go to my dermatologist every few months and I have had multiple spots removed from my body and I'm not even 30 years old.  I attribute all of this to my past exposure from tanning beds.  I now educated as many people as I can about the harmful effects of sun exposure and tanning beds.  Tan may seem cool, but I would rather be pale and alive.

Domenick Casuccio

7/29/2009 1:04:54 PM #

Len Lichtenfeld

Domenick, thanks for your comments.  Certainly your experience will be instructive for others, and we wish you well.

Kevin, I have not heard any concerns about blacklight.  What I can find out is that they apparently emit only a small amount of UV radiation, but the type and amount may depend on the actual brand of the bulb that is used.

Hopefully others will be able to provide additional information.

Len Lichtenfeld

7/29/2009 5:07:05 PM #


My problem here with this newly found evidence, is that today more than just tanning bed’s cause cancer. Cancer, in general, is a deterrent from more than just contact and exposure to a so-called, “deadly product.” If tanning beds are now going to be classified as “class 1” causing cancer agents, along with cigarettes, shouldn’t we stop selling cigarettes? If tanning beds should no longer be used, and perhaps, shut down, there should never be another cigarette sale made. The problem here that that that production and distribution of cigarettes, emanates billions of dollars a year to advertising companies, entertainment businesses, employees of distribution and sales, that no matter how deadly this product may be, cigarettes will always be sold. On the other spectrum, tanning beds are a much smaller industry. To tell people to stop tanning in this society is much easier than stopping the distribution of cigarettes. I am not saying, by any means, that exposure to tanning beds cannot cause cancer. But, sun cancer, such as Melanoma, can just as easily be caused by everyday exposure to sunlight such as being a resident of Miami and by genetic factors. Tanning beds, if anything, are a controlled group as comapared to a typical day in the sun. The comparative amount of exposure to such rays, has to weigh some higher ratio of natural sunlight vs. tanning beds. Anyone who stays out in the sun for a six our day at the beach is more susceptible to harmul rays than someone who tans in a tanning bed for 6 minutes. As with anything, moderate is always going to be key. But before we target tanning beds as a new death weapon, I think that further research should be done. My neighbor, who is 35 years old, has just been diagnosed with Melanoma. She has never once been inside of a tanning bed and spent the majority of her life as a resident of Upstate, New York, where she barely particpiated in any daily activities outdoors. My concern here, is mainly for this article to not scare people and cause an epidemic that is bigger than it should be.


7/30/2009 1:50:57 PM #


I, too, have had skin lesions (precancerous, luckily)removed that were the result of UVA/UVB exposure. We used to visit tanning beds fairly often until I developed several of the lesions on my chest.  This was in the winter, when I was not exposed to the sun.  Due to the timing between the tanning bed exposure and the lesions appearing, my doctor said the two were definitely related.  I do love being outside, and wear sunscreen every day, but have concern that I continue to have lesions when I had none until the time I used the tanning bed. Maybe all the exposure, indoor and outdoor cumulatively is the cause. Hard to know.  A question:  Do you think the tanning bed manufacturers had knowledge about how dangerous the beds were/the "improved" bulbs were that they kept from the public? Regarding the comment about cigarettes, the cigarette industry kept information from the public about the actual nicotine content of light cigarettes, eventually having to pay millions of dollars when they were found culpable--the light cigs actually had MORE nicotine than regular.  My point--I'm not interested in suing tanning salons or bed manufacturers, but might we see that in the coming days?


7/31/2009 8:26:20 PM #


In the past three months I have tanned in a bed about 23 times.  How concerned should I be?  I am kind of freaking out.  Any reponse would be greatly appreciated.


8/3/2009 9:26:10 PM #


Besides tanning beds most likely causing skin cancer, is there any research on tanning beds causing thyroid cancer? When I was going thru my teen-age years, my dermatologist had me sit many times in front of what I recall was a tanning lamp for my acne. Well, fast forward 26 years and I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had a total thyroidectomy (2 surgeries) and radioactive iodine treatments 3 times. My doctors could never really explain how I got thyroid cancer but I am convinced it was from the intense radiation emitting from those tanning lamps. My advice...stay away from those beds, you have no idea how much radiation is spewing out. Thyroid cancer is an extremely slow growing cancer (yet highly treatable if caught early enough), so it can be years till someone is diagnosed.


9/3/2009 11:43:07 PM #


Tanning beds definitely cause cancer.  I've recently been diagnosed with melanoma and i am 27 years old.  I use to work in a tanning salon when i was 16 and would tan for proms, events, and simply b/c i felt prettier with a tan.  At the salon we always promoted how tanning produces viatamin D and how much safer they were than being in the actual sunlight.  Fast forward 10 years later and i have been cut by surgeons 12 times.  When i started going to see my dermatologist for skin checks she would take a biopsy and send into the lab.  At first mine started out pre-cancerous cells so I would just have to go back into the office and have more of the area removed.  Now the past 2 biopsys i've had have been melanoma.  I had full surgery (anestic) and all and had 70 stitches in my breast and 80 in my leg that were both melanoma.  i just had both surgeries this year.  i have huge scars and it's mentally and physically draining. i will have to see my dermatologist 4 times per year if not more for the rest of my life just b/c i thought tanning beds were safe adn used them at a young age.  I strongly recommend to use a self tanner and stay away from the tanning beds.  I regret it everyday of my life.


2/4/2010 2:49:14 PM #


My 18 yr old step daughter was recently diagnosed with stage 2 papillary carcinoma thyroid cancer.  All evidence shows that thyroid cancer is cause by radiation exposure, now I am questioning if the fact that she tans excessively is not the cause. She is so dark from the tanning bed that we pick on her and tell her she looks like she is a different nationality. I am just curious of your opinion and if you would like to research her records and case for your study. The cancer she has doubled in size in almost a month time period so it is very agressive. Any information you can give us would be greatly appreciated.


2/4/2010 5:36:54 PM #

Len Lichtenfeld

Julie, I am sorry to hear about your daughter.  You are correct in noting that there is a link between radiation and cancer, but in this siutation I am not aware that there has been any link discussed or proven that tanning beds are associated with your daughter's illness.

That said, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer over the past several years, especially in women.  The reasons are not clear.

Len Lichtenfeld

2/4/2010 10:28:56 PM #


In all the information regarding Thyroid Cancer it talks about exposure to radiation, and the only thing I can think of would be a tanning bed. Again she tans A LOT and is really really dark, so I just wondered if you thought there might be a common denominator. Thanks


11/17/2010 9:36:53 PM #

Berna Jones

I have just been diagnosed with papillary carcinoma and I  have worked and used Tanning beds for 24 years. My husband thinks beacase i have worked at a tanning salon being exposed to radiation frequently i have developed thyriod cancer. It's worth looking into. What are your thoughts?

Berna Jones

5/10/2012 9:54:27 AM #

Rachel Vilt

I worked and tanned at a salon  in my late teens.  When I was 38 I found out I had thyroid cancer.  Doctor said it had probably been growing for the last 20 years.

Rachel Vilt

4/4/2013 4:45:30 PM #


There is so much misinformation here and its all a byproduct of peoples fear. Absent what you read in the media there is no evidence that links Melanoma to UV rays. As a matter of fact, there is evidence that supports the opposite considering that on the average, Melanoma incidence has risen among the population yet more people spend less time in direct sunlight and cover themselves with SPF lotion. Whats even more interesting is so many studies that have shown that even in the US, Farmers who spend the majority of their time outdoors in direct sunlight are far less likely to develop Melanoma than office workers. Also, did you know that if you are "white" you are 20 times more likely to develop melanoma than african americans regardless of your exposure to the UV light or lack thereof? So, where is all of the misinformation coming from? I tell everyone to follow the money and from here, it leads right back to all the major corporations that produce and sell skin care products that protect against the sun are part of a multi-billion dollar industry. Hell, even the products that you buy to protect your skin are more likely to cause cancer themselves than the UV rays they claim to keep you from.

Japan installed UV lights in their railways about 2 years ago to help lessen suicide attempts because... UV light helps combat depression. Why not just prescribe everyone lexapro? And if you are the manufacturer of anti-depressants would you rather people stayed inside and popped a pill, or went outside and enjoyed the FREE sunshine?

Please, everyone needs to get their heads out of the sand and be very critical of the information they are receiving from the bully pulpit. Read, research and always question, you will live longer and happier!


About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.



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