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Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer and Tanning Beds

Question:

I am a thirty year old woman. I use tanning beds about once a week (sometimes twice), especially during the winter months. During the summer, I tan outdoors. I recently heard that tanning beds were just as bad as cigarettes because they, too, can cause cancer. Is this really true? I find it hard to believe that tanning is just as cancerous as smoking. I go tanning because it makes me look and feel better. If it really is just as bad as smoking, are there any safer ways to getting tan?

Answer:

As dermatologists, this is a question that we hear very often from our patients. Many patients tell us they enjoy being tan for several reasons, including that it makes them feel good and look good. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a "healthy tan," and any amount of tan from ultraviolet radiation is a sign of skin damage and can increase the risk for most types of skin cancer, including melanoma. The incidence of melanoma is rising rapidly in young women, and the popularity of tanning from the sun and from tanning booths may explain the increase in this population.

Recent studies demonstrated that tanning bed use is associated with an increased risk of melanoma as well as other types of skin cancer. Based on these studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) added ultraviolet radiation emitted from tanning beds to their list of the most dangerous forms of carcinogens, agents that cause cancer. This list of carcinogens already included ultraviolet radiation from the sun and cigarettes.

In the dermatology clinic, we encourage patients who use tanning beds and who intentionally tan in the sun to stop doing so. This may be difficult for some individuals as recent studies suggest that there may be an addictive component to tanning. Laws are being passed in many states to limit the use of tanning beds by minors, with the hope of preventing young people from this dangerous exposure.

The only safe way to get a tan is by using "self-tanner," which can be applied as a lotion or sprayed on, either at home or at a salon. Individuals who use self-tanners should be aware that they do not work as sunscreens, and therefore, they should wear sunscreen or use sun-protective clothing when outdoors.

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Last Reviewed: Aug 26, 2013

Meg R Gerstenblith, MD Meg R Gerstenblith, MD
Assistant Professor of Dermatology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University