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Indoor Tanning: Is It Similar To Smoking?

Tanning salons are a $2 billion dollar industry in the U.S., and their bottom line has been damaged by the medical community’s warnings about the link between UV (ultraviolet) exposure and skin cancer. Recent studies have found that some Americans may have too little Vitamin D in their diets, and since the body can synthesize this vitamin when exposed to sunlight, the tanning industry is campaigning for the potential health benefits of UV exposure.  Vitamin D helps to keep bones strong, and may provide protection from osteoporosis, hypertension, cancer, and several autoimmune diseases.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure – I did use tanning salons in my late teens and early 20′s. I knew it could be harmful, but (like a moth to a flame?) couldn’t resist the sweet lure of changing my “glow in the dark” skin to a light shade of cream (no melanin is no melanin, friends). So,  I was more than curious to get an insider perspective on the tanning industry vs. medical professionals battle. I turned to a dermatologist whom I respect immensely: Revolution Health expert, Dr. Stephen Stone. I asked him the following questions:

1. Does exposure to ultraviolet light have health benefits?

Other than for treatment of disease (psoriasis for one, atopic eczema, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, for example), the only known benefit is the production of Vitamin D in the skin – and adequate vitamin D can be obtained from food and supplements without the danger of UV exposure – and even in the worst climates, the sun is an adequate source of Vitamin D without resorting to tanning beds.

2. What amount of sun exposure is currently recommended?

There is no “recommended daily allowance” for sun exposure, and 15 – 20 min a day of unprotected sun on the arms (not total body) will allow peak production of  vitamin D.

3. Are there alternatives for good health?

UV is not needed at all for “good health.”

4. What evidence is there that exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancers?

The US dept of HHS and FDA officially classify UV as a “known carcinogen” and there are numerous articles supporting this: Gandini et al., Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma, European Journal of Cancer,  Westerdahl et al.,  Risk of cutaneous malignant melanoma in relation to use of sunbeds, British Journal of Cancer (2000), Karagas et al., Use of tanning devices and risk of basal and squamous cell cancers, Journal of the NCI (2002).

5. How would you describe that risk?


6. What do you think of the recent ad campaign sponsored by the tanning industry?

Same as I think of cigarette ads!

7. What is your take-home message to patients about tanning salons?

If the cancer doesn’t get you, think of the wrinkles!  We focus on cancer, because that’s life and death, but no one can deny that the UV causes premature aging and wrinkles.

So there you have it, folks. Indoor and outdoor tanning are both harmful to your skin. Whether or not you get cancer, wrinkles are a sure result of excessive exposure to UV radiation (with a little help from our friend, gravity). So I’m going to keep up with my sunscreen (see Dr. Benabio’s blog post), get a skin check annually, and accept myself as the tanless wonder that I am. Or maybe I should create a pale people support group? Any joiners?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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3 Responses to “Indoor Tanning: Is It Similar To Smoking?”

  1. PearlsAndDreams says:

    THanks much! I have a friend who’s decided to take up this habit! You’ve given me ammo! As a skin cancer survivor, it’s been driving me nuts that she’s doing this.

  2. RH Host Melissa says:

    These are great questions you brought up Dr. Val.  And with spring here, and so many of us wanting a big of color, the timing is excellent!  Thanks again :)

  3. BR says:

    Fantastic article Dr. Val…..

    His comment that the tanning industry ads are akin to ads for smoking is something that should be on the nightly network news. 

    Keep up the great work.


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