The dangers of indoor tanning

Some advertisers suggest it’s sexy – but it’s not.

By Dr. Cheryl Rosen

Do you look better with a tan? Many Canadians seem to think so, particularly when attending celebrations such as proms and weddings. Although many Canadians seek a tan because they believe it enhances their appearance, they are risking their health in their quest. 

Some people are aware of the devastating side-effects from using indoor tanning beds, but seem to be willing to accept the risk. Others remain unaware of the possible side-effects of tanning and do not know that a tan is actually a response to damage to the skin.

The direct link between skin cancer and ultraviolet (UV) radiation is undeniable. But did you know that indoor tanning equipment can emit 10 to 15 times more UV radiation than you would be exposed to when outdoors in the afternoon sun? Not only is the tanning industry misleading its customers into believing that using artificial tanning equipment is beneficial, they are marketing their efforts directly to our children.

Industry advertisements encourage people to believe that a good “base tan” will help prevent sunburn. However, the facts remain that skin is damaged when obtaining a “base tan,” which only provides you with a sun protection factor of two to four. This certainly cannot compare to the effective sun protection found in a high-quality sunscreen.

The ads are directed towards the youth market for good reason. Indoor tanning is very common among teens and young adults, with over 70 per cent of Canadian females between the ages of 15 and 18 having used tanning beds. Forty per cent of female tanners between the ages of 11 and 18 have used tanning beds more than 10 times in the past year. 

In 2009, the World Health Organization reclassified tanning equipment as category-1 “carcinogenic to humans.” Tobacco, arsenic and plutonium also hold court in this category. Indoor tanning before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 per cent. Yet young people still use tanning beds in spite of the risk. Discount multi-tan packages, flashy advertising and the still common belief that a tan makes you look healthy can be very persuasive. 

Let’s convince tanners that no tan is sexy. Talk to the tanners you know, encourage them to skip the tan and be happy with the skin colour they were born with. Indoor or outdoor, no tan is worth the risk to your health.

True or False

Having a tan means I’m healthy.

False: A tan is evidence of damage done to the DNA of skin cells. Not all of this damage can be repaired, and it can lead to mutations that can ultimately result in skin cancer.

I can safely get a tan by using a tanning bed.

False: There is no such thing as a safe tan. Tanning beds may emit 10 to 15 times more UV radiation than the midday sun, which is why your skin tans in brief sessions.

Indoor tanning can give me all the vitamin D I need.

False: Taking a vitamin D pill and eating food that contains vitamin D are far safer ways of getting enough vitamin D, so skip the tanning bed. Most people get enough UVB radiation from incidental sun exposure in the spring and summer. 

Dr. Cheryl Rosen is the Chair of the Canadian Dermatology Association’s National Sun Awareness Program, Head of the Division of Dermatology at Toronto Western Hospital and an Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. 



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