The Ugly Truth About Indoor Tanning

Written By:Stacy Simon
woman tanning in tanning bed

Many people believe that using a tanning bed, booth, or sunlamp to get a tan is safer than tanning outside in the sun. But the truth is that just like sun tanning, indoor tanning also exposes skin to ultraviolet (UV) rays, the cause of most skin cancer.

UV rays, whether they come from indoor tanning or the sun, can also cause wrinkles, rashes, and dark spots. And tanning is particularly dangerous for the young. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who begin tanning during adolescence or early adulthood have a higher risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

According to CDC research, indoor tanning is especially popular among young women and teenage girls. One big reason is they believe they look more attractive and healthy with a tan. Many teens and their parents think getting a tan indoors is safer than tanning in the sun. But UV rays damage skin no matter where they come from. The most dangerous types of UV rays can actually change the DNA in cells, which is what experts believe causes most skin cancers. Weaker UV rays, though less likely to cause cancer, are linked to long-term skin damage, including wrinkles and changes in texture.

Indoor tanning is so dangerous, especially for young people, that federal, state, and local governments are taking steps to protect anyone under 18. California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have banned the use of tanning beds by minors, as have local jurisdictions in other states. As part of its Healthy People objective to improve the health of all Americans, the US Department of Health and Human Services has set a goal to reduce the proportion of high school students who use artificial sources of UV light for tanning to 14% by the year 2020.

The CDC's communication campaign publicizes the dangers of indoor tanning and busts these common myths. Did you know:

  • A base tan is not a safe tan.

Myth: A tan acts as the body's natural protection against sunburn.

Truth: A tan is the body's response to injury from UV rays, showing that damage has been done. It does little to protect you from future UV exposure.

  • Tanned skin is not healthy skin.

Myth: Tanning gives people a "healthy glow."

Truth: Whether tanning or burning, you are exposing yourself to harmful UV rays that damage your skin. In fact, every time you tan, you increase your risk of melanoma.

  • Controlled tanning is not safe tanning.

Myth: Indoor tanning is safe because you can control your level of exposure to UV rays.

Truth: Indoor tanning exposes you to intense UV rays, increasing your risk of melanoma – the second most common cancer in women between 20 and 29 years old.

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancer types, and the number of cases has been climbing over the past decade. Today, more than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States. That’s more than all other cancers combined. The best way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to limit your exposure to UV rays, whether they come from the sun or from man-made sources such as indoor tanning beds.

How to protect yourself

  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps. Both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.
  • Cover up. When you are out in the sun, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UV light.
  • Use sunscreen with “broad spectrum” protection and a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Be sure to reapply at least every 2 hours, as well as after swimming or sweating. And always follow the directions on the label.
  • Seek shade. Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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