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What's up with tanning?

What's up with tanning?

Tanning, a trend that many attributed to the look that Coco Chanel accidentally invented when she debuted her new bronze tone after getting too much sun on a cruise in the Mediterraneans. Over time, the idea of tanning had become so popular that the demand for quicker and more controlled ways of obtaining a tan rapidly increased, leading to both the sunbathing trend and the creation of the indoor tanning industry. However, as popular as it may have once been, skin cancer rates rapidly rose over the years and increasing amounts of scientific evidence attribute at least part of this trend to excessive ultraviolet radiation exposure. Numerous individual experts, health advocates, healthcare legislations, and large nonprofit organizations such as the World Health Organization have, for the most part, adopted the consensus that ultraviolet radiation is a carcinogen and that people should limit their own exposure to minimize the risk of developing skin cancer. Yet, despite the plethora of health concerns related to tanning and the large amount of publically available health information about ultraviolet radiation, both outdoor and indoor tanning remains prevalent.

Our topic today will be to discuss some of the issues and controversies around this topic, and why we recommend protecting yourself in the sun and avoiding indoor tanning all together.


Why do people tan?

Like any other personal choice, there is a combination of internal and external factors influencing one’s decision. For example, before we understood the damage that tanning does to the skin, having a tanned look was considered a physical sign of good health. Perhaps this was because engaging in outdoor physical activities is considered an indicator of good health and doing so generally leads to darker skin. So by the process of association, tan = health. But if you think about it carefully, making this connection isn’t necessarily correct because association is not causation. For instance, the statement ‘cities that have more parks have more crime’ is actually true. Your immediate conclusion to why this might be the case is that parks cause crime, but that’s just silly. In fact, the answer is that cities that have more people tend to have more parks AND have more crime thus having more parks is associated with more crime but not causing more crime. But if these types of assumptions are not explicitly clarified, misconceptions such as ‘tan = health’ can have profound effects on public perception and health practices.


What are the dangers of tanning?

In our previous article ‘What’s up with acronyms in sunscreen?’, we mentioned that UV radiation in general is associated with skin cancer. Specifically, significant UV exposure increases your risk of the 3 most common types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

There are numerous studies published in credible scientific journals that show this connection, but to quote one of the original landmark studies for indoor tanning, the use of indoor tanning before age 35 increases an individual’s risk of developing melanoma by 87%. In addition, each subsequent use of indoor tanning further increases your risk of developing melanoma. We also provided a reference for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

  1. Wehner MR et al. Indoor tanning and non-melanoma skin cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2012 Oct 2;345:e5909. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e5909.

  2. Boniol M et al. Cutaneous melanoma attributable to sunbed use: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2012 Jul 24;345:e4757. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e4757.


Not only does UV radiation cause skin cancer, it also causes photoaging, uneven pigmentation with new lesions like solar lentigos, and other cosmetic concerns. The most classic example of this is the image published by New England Journal of Medicine showing a 69-year-old driver after 25 years of left sided sun exposure, from being in the driver’s seat, causing a condition called unilateral dermatoheliosis (AKA one-sided sun damage of the skin).



What is the difference between indoor and outdoor tanning?

Indoor tanning is a quicker method of obtaining a tan. While the industry touts this as a safe method of tanning, the bottom line is that no tan is a safe tan. A tan is a physiological response to ultraviolet radiation exposure because your skin is trying to protect your body. Regardless of whether the UV is from a machine or the sun, it increases your risk of skin cancer. However, we would actually argue that indoor tanning is potentially more harmful in some ways.

  1. UV radiation from tanning beds can be up to 15 times stronger than the sun. While it feels like you are getting a quick dose of UV to get that tan, know that this is much stronger than what you would experience in the sun.

  2. Indoor tanning is not a one time thing. When you go to a tanning salon, you will typically be recommended on a course of several ‘treatments’ to obtain your desired level of tan. This type of behavior reinforces planned repeat exposures, which basically means more UV and higher risk of skin cancer.

  3. No one will reasonably photo-protect themselves in a tanning salon. When you go outside, you can wear hats, protective clothing, and sunscreen, but when you go indoor tanning, it will look pretty weird if you wore much more than a bathing suit, not to mention sunscreen. This means that you will get more UV radiation with less protection even in parts of your body that are not typically exposed to the sun.

We realize that there are all sorts of arguments for and against tanning. At ThinkSkin, we always recommend using credible sources for this type of information, so here is what Health Canada and Canadian Dermatology Association say about indoor tanning.



Not from Canada? Here is what FDA and American Academy of Dermatology have to say.



Not from Canada or US? Here is the World Health Organization’s statement.


Basically, the general consensus is that there is no such thing as a safe tan, even in relatively controlled environments like indoor tanning. Of course, maintaining an active lifestyle is important for good health and spending time outdoors can certainly have it’s benefits. As responsible adults, we should all try to find our own balance between risks and benefits in everything we do, including sun exposure and tanning. So be sure to protect yourself with sunscreen and protective clothing!

If you are hoping to learn more about  the basics of sunscreens, check out our other article!

That's all we have to say today folks! See you next time!


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