A glowing tan has become associated with health, youth, and attractiveness. The plain truth, though, is that a glowing tan amounts to the same as a blistering burn. A tan or a sunburn is your body's indication that you have been exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

A tan is a skin reaction. Exposure to the sun's UV rays causes skin cells (melanocytes) to darken your skin. The darkening process is actually your skin's defense against more UV damage.

Types of UV Radiation

Ultraviolet light is the invisible radiation in light and contains three layers: UVA, UVB, and UVC. 

  • UVA – weakest; ages skin, tends to cause allergic reactions (rash)
  • UVB – burns skin and ages skin, most responsible for sunburns
  • UVC – most dangerous, but not seen as a threat since it doesn't penetrate the earth's ozone layer

Both UVB and UVA rays penetrate the skin and pose a risk for skin cancer.

Tanning Beds: The Myth

Historically, tan skin revealed that you did hard labor outdoors. Thus, most people frowned on tanned skin, seeing it as weathered and a sign of your working class. The moneyed, leisure class stayed inside or shielded themselves with parasols when outside to maintain their porcelain skin.

Enter Coco Chanel. The fashion designer started a fad when, in 1923, she returned from a trip with a brand new shade of golden brown, thanks to the Riviera sunshine. A trend was born. Everyone—from celebrities to housewives—suddenly craved the sun, seeking sunny locations to work on their tans. By the 1950s, bikinis appeared on the scene, heightening the craze for a full-body tan. Hats and shawls dotted beaches, worn not as protective gear but as fashion statements.   

As the decades passed, the rise in skin cancers began to cause alarm. Warnings came from dermatologists and doctors about the damage and dangers of the sun's harmful radiation.

Tanning booths appeared in the early part of the 20th century as a means of medical research. In light of doctors' warnings about sun radiation, tanning beds gained popularity in the 1970s as a supposedly healthy alternative to tanning in natural sunlight.

Tanning Beds: The Reality

Despite claims to offer a safe alternative, the truth about the dangers of tanning beds eventually surfaced. Now, the FDA advises "avoiding artificial UV sources such as tanning beds entirely." According to the FDA, sunlamps may be more dangerous than the sun. Unlike the sun, tanning beds can be used at the same intensity every day of the year, increasing exposure and health risk.

Tanning beds are simply not good for you. The notion of avoiding the sun but replacing it with a tanning bed is not a good solution. In combined studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), findings show that "the risk of cutaneous melanoma is increased by 75 percent when the use of tanning devices starts before age 30."

Tanning bed risks include:

  • Cancer risk: UV radiation—both natural and artificial—increases your risk of developing skin cancer and puts your eyes at risk for developing cataracts and corneal burns.
  • Premature aging: Your skin loses elasticity from tanning and can develop early wrinkles.
  • Immune suppression: UVB radiation may negatively affect your body's immune system; this leaves you more vulnerable to disease.

Addicted to Tanning

A study by North Carolina's Wake Forest University suggests that tanning may have an addiction-like appeal. Findings indicated endorphins can trigger a "high" in tanners, followed by withdrawal-like symptoms if denied their "fix."

Tanning salons claim to offer a safe alternative to the sun. However, the UV radiation released in a tanning bed poses serious risks for developing health problems. Marketing can do wonders. But awareness can do more. Staying informed will help keep you healthy and make conscious choices.

Healthy Alternatives to Tanning

If you're craving a golden glow, there are a variety of safer options available on most drugstore shelves. Spray tans and lotions use the naturally occurring chemical dihydroxyacetone (DHA) to darken your skin. DHA is a sugar, derived from plants, which has been used for decades in sunless tanning products. Thankfully, time has offered some tweaking and improvements, and what once delivered an orange result has evolved into the offer of a more natural color.

Although applying sprays can be a messy ordeal, hand-held spray tanning products are FDA approved. If you have skin problems, such as excessively dry skin, you may need to blot these patchy areas, as they will likely absorb more spray. Always remember to provide yourself with proper ventilation to avoid inhaling the fumes.

Most importantly, protect yourself. Use a sunscreen every day, wear sunglasses that provide proper UV protection, and avoid the sun at its harshest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Learn about high-tech sun-protective clothing.