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What You Should Know About Tanning

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 7/3/2020

Now that spring has sprung and summer is coming quick on the horizon, you’re probably feeling the pressure to look your best.

Tanning is popular with tons of people. From busy nine-to-fivers trying to look their best for the weekend, to casual beach goers who'd rather lounge in the sand with a good book than stay inside watching Netflix all day, to teenagers looking for that "cool summer glow," people of all ages, genders and orientations sunbathe and tan.

But are there dangers to tanning? What are the risks? What are the rewards? Well, that's what we're going to look at today.

Waning Interest

First, it’s important to recognize that tanning, on the whole, has experienced a bit of a downturn in recent years. In 2017, American Academy of Dermatology researchers reported that since 2010, the amount of people using indoor tanning booths has dropped significantly.

The study revealed that among the most popular demographic—young, non-Hispanic white women—use declined as much as 30 percent.

There are numerous reasons as to why we’ve seen a drop. Although The Affordable Care Act tax on tanning might have led to decreased usage, there has also been an increase in awareness of the potential negative side effects of tanning.

However, despite the industry’s downward turn, tanning is still pretty popular.

Over 7.8 million American women and 1.9 million American men use indoor tanning methods. On top of that, 35 percent of American adults have done indoor tanning at some point in their life.

But indoor tanning is only one aspect of the broader phenomenon of people seeking transformation into bronzed gods and goddesses.

Indoor Tanning

When you think of tanning, an image of someone in a bathing suit lying in a tanning booth probably comes to mind. Despite seeming glamorous and relaxing, there are some serious risks.

According to the FDA, the reason why these booths work is because you’re being exposed to UV rays over a period of time. There are two kinds of UV rays: UV- B and UV- A rays.

While UV-B rays impact the top-layers of your skin and lead to sunburns, UV-A rays hit the deeper parts and can result in rashes.

Since indoor tanning lamps utilize both kinds of rays to make your skin darker, they can lead to skin cancer.

The FDA cites a International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 2006 review of studies that found that indoor tanning can result in melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

In addition, the IARC review found that a person’s risk of developing melanoma can increase by 75 percent when people start using tanning beds before the age of 30 and that UV-A and UV-B rays can harm DNA, which subsequently results in skin cancer.

Not only can indoor tanning beds lead to cancer, it can also damage the immune system, accelerate aging, deteriorate eyes and cause allergies.

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Tan Lotions and Spray Tanning

Though indoor tanning is understood as dangerous, spray-tans are a bit more complicated. These sprays make skin appear more tan without having to come into contact with UV-rays.

Since tanning is purely an aesthetic “need,” this solution is pretty perfect—in theory, at least. You can get tan without increasing the risk of skin cancer.

However, spray tans aren’t necessarily good for you. In their 2015 review of tanning methods for The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, researchers delved into the health impacts of tanning lotions and spray tans.

The liquid used in these lotions contains dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar molecule that changes your pigmentation when it interacts with the amino acids within the outer layers of your skin.

For an artificial tan to manifest, it can take anywhere between two to hour hours. In general, spray tans start to fade within 3-7 days as the skin naturally exfoliates itself which, for many people, doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

Additionally, it’s worth asking: Is DHA safe?

The FDA has approved DHA usage for human skin. However, the FDA is adamant that DHA isn’t safe for other parts of your body like your eyes, lips, and mucous membranes.

In fact, the FDA told ABC News in a 2012 report that DHA should not be inhaled or ingested directly into the body, and said that consumers who use DHA in spray tans are “not protected from the unapproved use of this color additive,” warning specifically that customers who wish to use these tans should request measures to prevent inhalation or contamination of their mucous membranes.

Though these salons give their customers goggles and nose-plugs, it’s not a full-proof method for protection.

According to researchers, there are numerous reported side-effects connected to DHA-based spray tans, including rashes, dizziness, coughing and even outright fainting.

More damningly, their research showed that a few physicians have found that over time, frequent exposure to DHA can lead to symptoms and diseases like pulmonary diseases, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even cancer.

On top of that, according to the review of studies linked above, the FDA has reassessed the previously held claim that DHA only impacted the outer layers of skin and posited that around 11 percent of DHA could actually penetrate deeper layers.

The review of studies also cited a research project which found that in mouses, DHA induced DNA damage and killed off living cells. Hence, DHA products can be deceptive.

While it might appear to be safe if you take the proper precautions, spray tans do come with serious risks that can manifest themselves in both the short and long term.

Outdoor Tanning

Indoor tanning and spray tans aren’t the only ways to darken one’s pigmentation. Outdoor tanning, the practice of inducing a sunburn on purpose to get a tan, is also an option.

Though it might seem appealing to get tan the old fashioned and organic way, outdoor tanning comes with its own set of risks. “Sunbathing” is a misleading term for something that could actually do a lot of harm.

According to the AIM at Melanoma Foundation, when UV rays deteriorate the skin, your body gets melanocytes to create more melanin, which then gets absorbed by skin cells for protection.

Getting a tan shows that your body is mitigating the harm that has been done. The more you willfully damage your skin, the more you’re increasing your chance of skin cancer.

There’s a good reason as to why the FDA’s guide to tanning succinctly states, “There is no such thing as a safe tan. The increase in skin pigment, called melanin, which causes the tan color change in your skin is a sign of damage.”

In their 2014 article “More Skin, More Sun, More Tan, More Melanoma” for the American Journal of Public Health, a team of researchers analyzed the various forms of “socioeconomic factors” that could result in an increase of melanoma in the general public.

They found a correlation between sun exposure rates and melanoma, and that the rise of skin cancer could be driven by “cultural and historic forces” like mass-media and travel trends that make tanning seem desirable.

Is Any Form of Tanning Healthy?

That leads us to the question: Should we tan?

Well, it’s tough to say. We understand the appeal of a beautiful bronze and the allure of sun-kissed skin. But it’s up to all of us to analyze the risks we’re taking. We’re not really in the business of telling women what to do with their bodies, but we feel like we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t lay the facts out before you.

And those facts are unfortunately simple:

No matter how you’re trying to get tan this summer—creams and lotions, indoor booths or even traditional outdoor sunbathing—you’re putting your body at some kind of risk.

Are there ways of mitigating these consequences? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, it’s important to understand that in choosing to tan, you’re making a conscientious decision to put your health behind your appearance.

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How to Help Your Skin

Though getting a tan isn’t recommended, there are legitimate, scientifically verified ways to improve your skin’s appearance. Hers offers treatments for anti-aging and acne that utilize Tretinoin, a Vitamin A derivative that’s been proven to accelerate skin turnover rates and increase collagen.

Are you interested in learning more about how hers can help your skin?

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.