Why Indoor Tanning Is Just As Dangerous As Outdoor Sun Tanning

Written by Alison Moseley, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on September 18, 2019 No Comments

tanning bed dangers

There is a myth that many people believe indoor tanning from a tanning bed is safer than tanning in the sun. After all, the tanning is done under the watchful eye of a company who can monitor and control the level of UV exposure to make it safer, right? Wrong! In fact, indoor tanning causes about 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States every year, leading to artificial UV light being considered a carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance, by the World Health Organization. (1)

There’s no such thing as a “healthy tan”

A suntan is the darkening of the melanin in the skin in response to ultraviolet exposure. It’s the body’s defense response – the skin literally darkens in an attempt to protect itself from the forthcoming damage caused by UV overexposure.

A suntan that develops immediately is primarily a response to UVA exposure, while a tan that develops days after exposure is mostly due to UVB rays. A suntan reflects changes in the skin that are occurring on a molecular level.

Bottom line: there is no such thing as a “healthy tan.” In fact, any form of tanning (including indoor tanning using a tanning bed) is a symptom of the skin being potentially harmed.

Controlled tanning (tanning beds) is still not safe

Controlled tanning may limit individuals from contracting a full sun burn. However, all forms of tanning are unsafe for the skin. Like natural outdoor tanning, indoor tanning (be it though a tanning bed, sun lamp, or tanning booth) still exposes the skin to levels of ultraviolet (UV) rays that trigger the skin’s natural defense response. The UV radiation from indoor tanning increases the risk of melanoma, whether or not a sunburn occurs. (2)

The most dangerous of these rays actually alter DNA cells in the skin, causing cancerous growths. Thus, even the most controlled methods of tanning can dramatically increase the risk of developing some form of skin cancer. In addition, UV ray exposure can cause photoaging (wrinkles and saggy skin) and other forms of sun damage such as age spots (solar lentinges).

Indoor tanning is especially dangerous for teens

All forms of tanning are especially dangerous for young teens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that individuals who sought suntans during their early adulthood were at an increased risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. In fact, using indoor tanning beds before age 35 increases this risk by 59%. (3)

The risk is so great that several states, including Texas, have passed legislation to ban minors from using indoor tanning beds. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has put forth awareness programs aimed at reducing the proportion of high schoolers who choose to naturally or artificially tan.

Safe Tanning Options via Self-Tanners

There is one safe option for people who want a tanned look without harming their skin: topical self-tanners. Sunless tanning products are lotions, creams, or sprays that color the skin without UV light. These products use dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive that temporarily darkens the skin when applied to dead skin cells at the skin’s surface.

Self-tanners can be applied through a professional spray (spray tan) or the use of several at-home lotions.

There are some studies, however, that suggest chemicals contained in self-tanning products may be harmful to the health of the user. Additionally, it’s best to avoid self-tanning pills as they include canthaxanthin, an additive linked to liver damage when taken in large amounts.


(1) Wehner MR, Chren M, Nameth D, et al. International Prevalence of Indoor Tanning: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150 (4): 390-400. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.6896.

(2) Vogel RI, Ahmed RL, Nelson HH, Berwick M, Weinstock MA, Lazovich D. Exposure to indoor tanning without burning and melanoma risk by sunburn history. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2014 Jul 16;106(7). pii: dju219. doi: 10.1093/jnci/dju219.

(3) Boniol M, Autier P, Boyle P, Gandini S. Cutaneous melanoma attributable to sunbed use: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2012 Jul 24;345:e4757

Alison Moseley, MD

Alison Moseley, M.D. completed her doctorate of medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where she graduated with the distinction of Magna Cum Laude. Dr. Moseley is Board Certified by the American Board of Dermatology and is active in various medical organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Society of Dermatology, the Texas Dermatological Society, the Texas Medical Association, and the Travis County Medical Society. She currently sees patients at our Lakeway location.

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