Why is tanning dangerous?

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As many as 90% of melanomas are estimated to be caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure. This includes UV exposure from the sun and from artificial sources, such as tanning beds. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies tanning beds and tanning lamps into its highest cancer risk category – carcinogenic to humans, the same category as other hazardous substances such as asbestos and plutonium.

Numerous individual studies, including an analysis of several studies combined (meta-analyses), have consistently shown that indoor tanning increases the risk of developing all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma.

Misleading Information

The tanning industry has tried to tell consumers that vitamin D is necessary and that it should be sought from tanning beds. However, the majority of tanning bulbs actually emit UVA radiation, and UVB radiation is needed for the body to produce vitamin D. That fact is, all necessary vitamin D can be found in a healthy diet or from a vitamin supplement. If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, consult your doctor, not a tanning salon!

Staggering Statistics

Research indicates that just one blistering sunburn can double your chances of developing melanoma later in life. In addition, using tanning beds before age 30 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent. Occasional use of tanning beds triples your chances. Research also suggests a strong dose-response relationship - meaning the more sessions, hours and years spent tanning, the higher the risk of developing melanoma and other types of skin cancer. 

Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old. Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in women 25-30 years old and the second leading cause of cancer death in women 30-35 years old. 

For more melanoma facts and figures, view the MRF’s Melanoma Fact Sheet.

There is NO Such Thing as a “Safe Tan”

Tanned skin is a result of damage to skin cells. Research suggests that the cumulative damage to skin cells can lead to wrinkles, age spots, premature aging and skin cancer. Tanning is so dangerous that several countries, including Brazil, have made it completely illegal.

What about getting a "base tan" before you go on vacation? Well, studies have actually found that a base tan fails to protect against sunburn and provides very minimal sun protection - equivalent to an SPF of about 3. 

Tanning is Addictive

The connection between UV radiation and melanoma is clear, yet tanning is more popular than ever. This has prompted researchers to explore the addictive nature of tanning. Resulting research shows tanning is, in fact, addictive, similar to other cancer-causing activities (e.g. tobacco use). UV light has been shown to increase the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that relieve pain and generate feelings of well-being. This could potentially lead to dependency.

In fact, a recent study found that some people who have been diagnosed with melanoma continue to use indoor tanning beds – further supporting the idea that tanning is addictive.

The bottom line? Intentional UV tanning of any kind, in the sun or in a tanning bed, is never recommended. 

The MRF is committed to reducing melanoma by educating people about the dangers of tanning and the importance of catching potential threats early. As part of these efforts, the MRF actively opposes tanning through UV radiation. Based on current evidence, the MRF supports the views of the Surgeon General, and recognizes that while spray tanning and lotions do not expose users to UV radiation, there are other concerns associated with the use of these products. Below is the Surgeon General’s position on sunless tanning, as stated in the Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer:

  • “To reduce harms from indoor tanning, some organizations have promoted the use of topical sunless tanning products as a way to get a tanned appearance without UV exposure. One concern about this method of tanning is that dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a commonly used ingredient in sunless tanning products, is approved by FDA for use in cosmetics and drugs for external application only. When this product is used in spray tanning booths (spray-on tans), inhalation is usually unavoidable.
  • In addition, the promotion of sunless tanning products does not address the underlying social norms that drive tanning behaviors. 
  • Sunless tanning products are often used in conjunction with, rather than in place of, UV tanning. Furthermore, their use does not appear to lead to safer outdoor sun exposure and could potentially increase the likelihood of sunburn. 
  • Other methods used to achieve tanned skin, such as pills and injections, have additional health risks. 
  • However, over-the-counter sunless tanning creams and lotions may be an option for those who want to have tanned skin while avoiding the health risks of UV exposure and inhaled and absorbed DHA.”

While further research will help in better understanding the specific health impact of sunless tanning products, they may play a role in further perpetuating harmful perceptions that people’s natural skin color must be modified to be beautiful. The MRF encourages people to embrace and value the skin in which they were born.