When people use a tanning bed or booth or a sunlamp to get a tan, it's called indoor tanning. Indoor tanning uses artificial ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light, rather than sunlight, to tan the skin.
Is indoor tanning safe?
People may feel that a tan makes them look good and that a tan looks "healthy." But recent research has found that being exposed to the light from tanning beds isn't as safe as it might seem.
The light from a tanning device can cause skin cancer. Tanning devices are linked to basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and the most serious type of cancer, melanoma. Indoor tanning, especially if used before age 35, increases your risk for all these skin cancers.
And indoor tanning harms you in other ways as well. It can:
Cause skin damage, including wrinkling at a younger age than normal.
Give you a rash, if you are sensitive to sunlight.
Do children and teens have a special risk?
Most of us have stayed out in the sun too long and gotten a sunburn at some point in our lives. But when this happens during childhood or the teen years, it can increase the risk for melanoma later in life.
And because of the risk for skin cancer, medical experts recommend that children 18 and younger not use indoor tanning at all. Some states have made it illegal for children 18 and younger to use indoor tanning.
Why do people use indoor tanning?
Even though indoor tanning isn't safe, some people still use it. But their reasons may not be valid.
People may believe that indoor tanning can give them a "base tan" that protects them from getting a sunburn while outdoors. But a tan is how your skin responds to injury—getting a tan is a sign that your skin has already been damaged.
People may believe that they can avoid sunburn by using indoor tanning. But if you stay under the artificial light too long or at too high an intensity, you can get a sunburn.
People may say they use indoor tanning to get vitamin D in the winter, when there is less sunlight. You can do this, but you can get vitamin D from a healthy diet or a vitamin supplement and avoid the risk of cancer.
What are some other tanning products?
If you like the way a tan looks, you can buy sunless tanning products. These are usually lotions, gels, and sprays that you put on the skin. These products color the skin to make it look like you have a tan. To keep your tan, reapply the tanning product regularly. If you use these products, cover your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears before you apply them.
These products are generally safe, but they don't protect against sunburn. You will still need to use sunscreen.
There are also tanning pills. These are not safe. They can cause problems such as liver damage and hives.
What are some indoor tanning safety precautions?
Indoor tanning increases the risk of skin cancer. If you choose to use a tanning device, you can take steps to reduce your risk.
Always wear fitted goggles over your eyes.
Use the tanning device only as the maker recommends. Follow the maker's recommended exposure time for your skin type.
Use short exposure times when you start.
Don't use the most intense exposure when you start.
After you have a tan, don't use the device more than once a week.
American Academy of Dermatology (2012). Indoor tanning. Available online: http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/indoor-tanning.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Indoor tanning. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/indoor_tanning.htm.
El Ghissassi FE, et al. (2009). A review of human carcinogens—Part D: Radiation. Lancet Oncology, 10(8): 751–752. Also available online: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(09)70213-X/fulltext#article_upsell.
International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group on Artificial Ultraviolet (UV) Light and Skin Cancer (2006). The association of use of sunbeds with cutaneous malignant melanoma and other skin cancers: A systematic review. International Journal of Cancer, 120(5): 1116–1122. Also available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.22453/pdf.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2010). Indoor tanning: The risks of ultraviolet light. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm186687.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.