Is There Any Kind of Tan That’s Safe?

Whether you tan indoors or outdoors, you increase your risk for skin cancer.

Sun-kissed. Bronzed. Healthy glow. We’ve come up with many phrases to express how beautiful tanned skin is, but the truth is, it puts you at risk for skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with one in five Americans developing it during their lifetime.

“The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma,” says Jenny C. Hu, MD, MPH, a dermatologist at Keck Medicine of USC and associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Frequent and cumulative exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays — whether naturally, from the sun, or artificially, from tanning beds — increases the risk of developing these more common skin cancers. Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to other parts of the body, and squamous cell carcinoma has a low risk of spreading. Melanoma, however, the most serious type of skin cancer, has the potential to spread to other parts of the body quickly. But when detected early, melanoma is highly treatable.”

There is other good news. According to the American Cancer Society, most cases of melanoma may be preventable by avoiding damaging UV rays. What this means, of course, is avoiding all tanning, from both the sun and tanning beds. If you still crave the tanned look, so-called “sunless” tanning may be a safer option. Read on for some myths and truths about tanning, in all of its various forms.

Call for an Appointment
(800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273)

Sunbathing

Nothing beats the beach on a hot summer day — but while you’re enjoying the ocean breeze, those UV rays are reflecting off the sand and water. And unfortunately, it doesn’t take an actual burn to damage your skin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any change in color at all indicates injury to your skin. Tanning occurs when the skin produces more pigment, or melanin, in response to UV rays. Over time, these changes may increase your chances of getting skin cancer.

To reduce your risk, stay out of the sun when UV rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wear clothes that cover you up, and add a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses for a chic summer look that also protects you. And don’t forget your broad-spectrum sunscreen, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Remember, you can be exposed to the sun’s damaging UV rays at any time of year, and even on cloudy days. Although fair-skinned people are more at risk of skin cancer, Hu notes that melanomas can develop in people of any ethnicity, including those who do not have fair skin.

Indoor tanning

It’s a myth to think that indoor tanning is any safer than tanning under the sun. The UV radiation that tanning beds, booths and lamps produce is similar to, and under certain circumstances may even be stronger than, that of the sun. Indoor tanning is especially hazardous for young people.

“Using tanning beds before the age of 35 can increase your risk of developing melanoma by 59%, and this risk increases with each use,” Hu says. Some states have even banned indoor tanning for minors due to this danger.

It’s also a misconception to think getting a “base” tan indoors will protect you against sun damage, because the tan itself means you’ve already harmed your skin. In fact, a survey conducted by the CDC found that people who tanned indoors were more likely to report having gotten a sunburn than outdoor tanners.

Sunless tanning

If you’re still set on getting that tanned look, do it safely, with a spray tan or lotions that don’t damage your skin. Unlike UV rays, which alter the amount of melanin in your skin, these products use a color additive, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), that reacts with amino acids in your skin’s surface to darken its color. Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved DHA for external use, it does not yet have the data to determine whether it’s safe to inhale it or apply it to your eyes, lips or any part of your body covered by a mucous membrane. So if you get a spray tan, hold your breath and protect your eyes, ears, nose and mouth while it’s being applied.

Even with a spray tan or sunless tanning lotions, you’ll still need to use sunscreen outdoors, unless the tanning product you’re using specifically says it contains an SPF.

“Anyone who has had a history of significant sun exposure, even with no prior history of skin cancer, should have their skin checked by a dermatologist on at least an annual basis,” Hu adds, “so that any potential skin cancers may be detected early.”

by Tina Donvito

Are you concerned about the effects of tanning? Our expert dermatologists can help. If you’re in Southern California, request an appointment or call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).