Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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The Hazards of Indoor Tanning

Ever since I was a medical student, wise dermatologists have reminded me, “There is no such thing as a safe tan.” True tanning requires skin exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR), and therein lies the problem. UVR causes skin cancers, notably melanoma. There is no way around it—if you expose your skin to the sun and therefore to UVR, you increase the risk that you will acquire skin cancer.

For this particular situation, avoidance is the logical strategy. That can be accomplished by entirely staying out of the sun (e.g., remaining indoors), but that runs contrary to the notion of outdoor activities. So, what should a person do? To the best extent possible, one can avoid the times of days and situations that maximize UVR exposure, and use protective clothing and sunscreens.

Some people attempt to achieve indoor tanning for the cosmetic effect, to lessen the likelihood of sunburn upon natural UVR exposure, and to jump-start a natural tan. They may also perceive a beneficial effect upon mood, which might be a very real phenomenon, but may also reflect that one might become addicted in some way to indoor tanning (as noted by results of questionnaires [Mosher CE, Danoff-Burg S: “Addiction to indoor tanning: relation to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.” Archives of Dermatology 2010;146(4):412-417] and the observation of withdrawal symptoms in persons treated with opiate antagonists). Indoor tanning stimulates skin production of vitamin D, but whether or not this strategy—with its attendant skin cancer risk—is preferable to taking oral vitamin D supplements is questionable. 

Indoor tanning leads to an unacceptable (from a health perspective) increased risk of melanoma and other skin cancers. Given the epidemiology of who exposes themselves indoors to UVR for tanning purposes, this would be expected to afflict young women. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (2010;363(10):901-903) entitled “Indoor Tanning – Science, Behavior, and Policy,” David Fisher and Williams James put forth a cogent case that mentions the above and discusses the prospects for regulating indoor tanning. They point out that the tanning industry argues that indoor tanners avoid sunburn better than do outdoor tanners, but also explain the many ways in which UVR can be carcinogenic. Their conclusion that regulation of the industry may be beneficial and required to have an impact on lowering the incidence of melanoma in our susceptible population is well reasoned and insightful. 

If you are going to spend time outdoors, you are going to be exposed to UVR. Exposing yourself to UVR indoors in preparation for going outdoors is not logical if you are concerned about avoiding skin cancer.

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Tags: Hot & Cold , Products , Staying Safe

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.