Tanning beds are a popular way to make your skin look tanner without going outside. They’re also used in phototherapy, which can treat conditions such as psoriasis. Using tanning beds carries some risks and side effects.

One side effect is something called a “tanning bed rash.” This bumpy, red, and itchy rash may develop in the first few hours or days after using a tanning bed.

What causes a tanning bed rash?

A tanning bed rash can have several causes.

The most straightforward cause of a tanning bed rash is dry skin. If you start your tanning session with dry skin, tanning lamps can zap the moisture from the top layer of your skin. This can cause your skin to rebel with itchy, scaly patches.

Another cause is ultraviolet (UV) overexposure. Tanning beds use heat lamps to expose your body to UV rays. But your skin isn’t always able to absorb the amount of ultraviolet radiation that these heat lamps deliver. In these cases, you’ll develop a rash.

Tanning can also cause a heat rash (milaria), which happens when the flow of your sweat is interrupted. Sweat becomes trapped between the layers of your skin and causes a rash.

There are also cases when what appears to be a tanning bed rash is actually an allergic reaction. It’s not unusual to have a reaction to a product you use while tanning. Tanning lotions, oils, and other products can clog pores and cause your skin to react with a rash. If beds aren’t wiped down properly between users, leftover product from someone else may get on your skin and cause a rash.

Even cleaning products used to wipe down tanning beds can be the cause of a tanning bed rash.

What are the symptoms of a tanning bed rash?

If you have a rash from a tanning bed, you’ll recognize it from some common symptoms. They include:

  • raised white or red bumps on your skin
  • inflammation or itching

When to see a doctor

If you develop a rash after using a tanning bed, keep a close eye on it. If the rash lasts for more than five days, you should speak with your doctor or dermatologist to see if there are other factors at play.

Scratching a tanning bed rash too much can cause the top layer of your skin to break and lead to an infection. If you notice discolored pus coming from the site of your rash, or if you develop a fever in connection to the rash, seek medical attention right away.

How to treat a tanning bed rash

A tanning bed rash will usually go away within a few days. In the meantime, the discomfort and itching from the rash can be distracting. Start with at-home treatments to see if your symptoms become easier to deal with:

  • Avoid additional sun exposure. Until your rash starts to subside, apply a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 30 if you have to go outside. Cover your rash with loose-fitting clothes made of natural fibers.
  • Use aloe vera or topical cream. Applying pure aloe vera gel to your rash may soothe symptoms of redness and itching. An antihistamine cream may help if you believe your rash is due to an allergic reaction. A 1% hydrocortisone cream may reduce symptoms of swelling, itching, and inflammation.
  • Take a warm bath. Soaking in a lukewarm bath with colloidal oatmeal can also help you manage itchiness.

If home remedies don’t work, your doctor may prescribe a stronger antihistamine or hydrocortisone cream.

What’s the outlook of a tanning bed rash?

A tanning bed rash can be uncomfortable, but the good news is that it shouldn’t last long. If you’re able to avoid additional UV exposure after your rash appears, it should be gone within 24 to 48 hours.

Additional exposure to the sun could prolong the length of your rash.

How to prevent a tanning bed rash

There are some things you can do to avoid getting a tanning bed rash. To prevent a rash after a tanning session, make sure you:

  • only use tanning beds in a clean and reputable tanning salon
  • wipe down the surfaces of the tanning bed thoroughly with a hypoallergenic wipe before use
  • avoid further sun exposure for a day or two after a tanning session to prevent overexposure to UV rays

If you have a history of skin cancer in your family, you may wish to avoid tanning beds entirely. Be honest with your doctor about your tanning habits and ask about the risk factors for your specific skin type. Unless you’re using tanning beds as a treatment for psoriasis or another skin condition, you may want to consider safer ways to make your skin look tan.