Our society associates a glowing tan with health, youth, and attractiveness. However, the plain truth is that a tan or sunburn is your body’s way of telling you that you’ve been exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Exposure to the sun’s UV rays causes skin cells (melanocytes) to darken your skin by producing more melanin (which makes your skin appear darker). The darkening process is actually your skin’s defense against more UV damage. While the tan will fade, the damage that occurs to your skin is long-lasting. This damage increases your risk for skin cancers such as melanoma as well as signs of premature aging with increased wrinkles.

Some people use tanning beds in the pursuit of a bronzed glow year-round. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that we completely avoid artificial UV sources such as tanning beds. According to the FDA, the sunlamps in tanning beds may be more dangerous than the sun. Unlike the sun, which comes and goes depending on the weather, you can use tanning beds at the same intensity every day of the year. This increases exposure and health risk. On that same note, the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization's International Agency of Research on Cancer panel have stated that UV radiation from the sun as well as artificial sources like tanning beds are a known carcinogen, which means that they may cause cancer.

Ultraviolet light is the invisible radiation in light and contains the following three layers:

  • UVA: weakest UV ray, ages skin and tends to cause allergic reactions (rash)
  • UVB: burns and ages skin, most responsible for sunburns
  • UVC: most dangerous, but not seen as a threat because it doesn’t penetrate the Earth’s ozone layer

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

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

Enter Coco Chanel. The fashion designer started a fad in 1923 when she returned from a trip to the Riviera with a brand new shade of golden brown skin. A trend was born. Everyone from celebrities to housewives suddenly craved the sun and sought sunny locations to work on their tans. By the 1950s, bikini bathing suits appeared on the scene and heightened the craze for a full-body tan.

As the decades passed, the rise in skin cancers began to cause alarm. Warnings came from dermatologists and doctors about the skin 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 are dangerous, and avoiding the sun but replacing it with a tanning bed does not reduce the risks that are associated with UV damage to your skin. In combined studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, findings show that “the risk of cutaneous melanoma is increased by 75 percent when the use of tanning devices starts before age 30.”

Another common activity is to tan indoors before sun exposure or going on vacation, to prevent sunburns. However, a recent study demonstrates that you are at increased risk of melanoma if you tan indoors, even if you do not burn. Generally speaking, this study tells us that tanning indoors in anticipation of spending time in the sun is not a protective measure and is in fact harmful.

Tanning bed risks include the following:

  • Cancer risk: UV radiation, both natural and artificial, increases your risk of developing skin cancer. It also puts your eyes at risk for 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, leaving you more vulnerable to disease.

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 you make healthier choices.

If you’re craving a golden glow, there are safer options available on most drugstore shelves. Spray tans and tanning 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. Fortunately, time has provided some tweaking and improvements to the formulas. What once delivered an orange result now offers a more natural-looking skin color.

Although applying sprays can be messy, the FDA has approved handheld spray tanning products. If you have skin problems, such as excessively dry skin, you may need to blot these patchy areas. They will likely absorb more spray. Always apply the sprays in rooms with proper ventilation to avoid inhaling any fumes.