The weather is getting warmer and another Jersey Shore spinoff show is in the works. This can only mean one thing: It’s time to work on your tan.
Of course, if you’re among the one million Americans who frequent tanning salons each day, the winter probably didn’t stop you from reaching that ideal level of tan.
But with so many Americans seeking indoor tanning solutions to their pale skin problems, researchers and dermatologists continue to provide evidence that these habits aren’t just unnatural — they are extremely unhealthy.
So what’s the solution?
Some tanners hope to avoid the health problems associated with beds by opting to get their tan from the sun rather than a bulb. After all, that will help them get their daily dose of vitamin D too.
But outdoor tanning also carries significant risk.
The most serious risk for any type of tanning is skin cancer. When it comes to indoor tanning, the cancer risk is even bigger than another popular vice: smoking.
Tanning beds have been linked to more skin cancer cases worldwide than lung cancer cases caused by smoking, according to a study published in JAMA Dermatology.
That doesn’t necessarily mean tanning is as bad or worse than smoking (smoking is linked to a host of other health conditions as well), but indoor tanning has been linked to 419,254 yearly cases of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Only about 244,210 cases of lung cancer from all causes are expected in the United States in 2014, according to the American Cancer Society.
Before you decide to run to the beach instead of the nearest salon, consider that ultraviolet radiation from the sun (not tanning beds) is still the main cause of skin cancer, according to Stanford Medicine.
The risks for indoor tanning doesn’t end at skin cancer. A popular fad amongst teenagers, researchers found that kids who frequently go tanning are also more likely to develop eating disorders.
A survey of approximately 27,000 high school students showed that females who had gone indoor tanning within the past year (about 24 percent) were far more likely to have fasted, vomited, taken laxatives, or taken weight loss pills, powders or liquids. The association was even stronger in males, according to the study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.
Researchers could not prove that tanning caused the increased risk of eating disorders, but the association shows that teens who might have a negative body image seek out dangerous activities, such as tanning.
Tanning beds primarily emit ultraviolet A waves, and only some ultraviolet B waves.
Dr. Crutchfield explained the difference using a simple mnemonic device: “Most tanning beds are made up of UVA rays. UVB rays cause burning, while UVA rays cause aging,” he said. “UVA penetrates deeper so it’s much more damaging.”
“Any type of UVA is no good. You won’t burn, but if you wear sunscreen you won’t burn either,” said Dr. Crutchfield.
While UVA rays are worse, outdoor tanning is more likely to cause burning because of the higher amount of UVB exposure.
“It takes 20 minutes for sunscreen to protect your skin. People lay out, get settled and then put sunscreen on, but then it still takes 20-30 minutes,” explained Dr. Crutchfield. “[You need to] wear sunscreen and reapply it every hour.”
Although the risk is lower, tanning beds can also burn your skin.
Parents might worry about their children acquiring bad habits in college — tanning is probably not one of them. Maybe it should be.
One-third of college students who used indoor tanning facilities met addiction criteria used to diagnose substance abuse addiction, according to a study published in the journal Archives of Dermatology.
Although indoor tanning might be easier and more accessible for some, previous studies have found that even outdoor tanning can be addicting. Approximately 18 percent of outdoor tanners could be qualified as addicted, according to LiveScience.
In addition to eating disorders and addiction, indoor tanning has been linked to risky teenage behavior such as binge drinking and sex, according to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think it’s important to understand the prevalence of indoor tanning and its relation to other risky behaviors,” Gery Guy, Jr., the study’s lead author from the CDC, told Reuters Health.
Since indoor tanning is used for superficial reasons, researchers suggested a new approach to warn teens of the dangers. They suggest emphasizing the detrimental appearance aspects rather than just the negative health effects.
Although tanners sacrifice their skin to look better, UV rays can actually cause your skin to age and look worse.
As Dr. Crutchfield explained, UVA rays cause aging skin, and can cause brown (liver) spots.
Unprotected UV exposure can also cause leathery, wrinkled skin, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. You might think you look good for the club, but your skin could look worse long-term.
“You’ll look much older than you are,” warned Dr. Crutchfield.
Tanning isn’t all bad, though the benefits, such as vitamin D, are often overestimated.
As little as 10 minutes of sunlight a day can provide people with enough vitamin D to reduce their risk for heart disease, psoriasis, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.
Avoid the Sun, and Risk These Diseases)
Exposure to the sun also helps improve mental health, and can even help treat seasonal affective disorder.
Unfortunately, people don’t tan for only 10 minutes a day. That’s barely enough time to put on sunscreen, let alone alter the color of your epidermis.
“You need so little sunlight to produce vitamin D,” said Dr. Crutchfield. “[Instead] just supplement, or eat oily fish. [Vitamin D] is just an excuse to feel better about tanning.”
Some people might go tanning because it’s popular and trendy. Others might do it out of habit.
Almost everyone who goes tanning does it for one reason: physical attractiveness.
Looking and feeling attractive can be important. People want to feel attractive, and they aren’t crazy for thinking that tanning will help.
A 2010 study took 45 photos of women and photoshopped them to look tanner. In an effort to see which version people found more attractive, both photos were released on an attractiveness-rating website.
The results showed that the tanned versions were twice as likely to be rated as more attractive.
For whatever reason, people find tanned skin more attractive than non-tanned skin.
The answer to this question should be obvious by now, but if you haven’t figured it out then here’s the bad news: Tanning, whether indoor or outdoor, isn’t good for you.
“When you’re young you think you’re invincible. [People think] ‘why worry about skin cancer? [I] need to look good now. [I’ll] worry about the skin cancer 20 years from now,’” said Dr. Crutchfield. “If you want the look, use the sunless tanning lotion, or get the spray on tan.”
The skin cancer risk alone outweighs any benefit you might get from tanning, but other problems like sunburn and addiction should also raise some red flags.
“I understand you want to look good, but you’re essentially poisoning yourself and you put yourself at great risk of getting melanoma and dying from it,” Dr. Crutchfield said.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can never go tanning, and you definitely shouldn’t avoid the sun.
“I am a realist,” concluded Dr. Crutchfield. “I say go outdoors have fun in the sun. I believe people should enjoy themselves indoor or outdoors, but just be safe and sun smart.”