Q: I occasionally use a tanning bed before a trip or a big event, just to give me a little color. Isn’t that better than lying out in the sun for hours? And doesn’t it give my vitamin D a boost, too?
A: Where to begin? First, ultraviolet radiation, whether from the sun or from a tanning bed, is a carcinogen, just like cigarettes are a carcinogen. And just as there’s no safe amount of smoking, you can’t get a little safe tan. The damage it does, even if it’s just a bit here and there, adds up over time and contributes to overall aging as well as skin cancer.
Tanning beds are not safer than lying out in the sun. In fact, people who have ever used a tanning bed have a 67 percent increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma and a 29 percent increased risk of developing basal cell carcinoma. People who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent. Melanoma is very prevalent in women in their early 20s, and a lot of that is attributed to tanning bed use. That’s one of the reasons many states have restricted their use for minors.
I had a young patient who was diagnosed with a melanoma on her ankle a year before her wedding. She was a California girl with lots of tanning history, both from the beach and from tanning beds. We did surgery on her melanoma, but it left a noticeable scar on her ankle. We treated the scar with lasers and creams for about six months, and it improved, but she still felt she had to cover it with makeup for the wedding.
A few weeks ago, another melanoma patient asked me, “So how much can I tan, because I really look better with a tan.” Sadly, even after being diagnosed with melanoma, many patients still choose to suntan. I advised my patient: “Go get a spray tan. They’re fabulous now.”
Two types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB, contribute to skin cancers. Think of UVA as what ages your skin — “A” for aging, and UVB as what causes sunburn — “B” for burns. Tanning beds provide more UVA (which leads to tanning) than UVB (which your skin uses to make vitamin D). Both types contribute to skin cancer.
As for vitamin D: It doesn’t take very many minutes of sun exposure for your body to maximize how much vitamin D it can make. But seeking extra sun exposure just for the vitamin D is too risky. Likewise, tanning beds are not a safe source of vitamin D. Get the recommended 600 international units daily from oily fish, fortified dairy foods and cereals, or from supplements if needed.
Lisa Chipps, MD, is a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon who practices in Beverly Hills, Torrance and Encino, California. She is on the faculty at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and on staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
* This article was first published in the 2017 issue of The Skin Cancer Foundation Journal.