Are Tanning Beds Safe In Moderation?

Beautiful young woman have tanning skin treatment in modern solarium
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Though the dangers of tanning beds are well documented, there are still those who ignore the risks. To make matters more confusing, myths perpetuated about tanning beds, primarily by marketers from the tanning bed industry, range from tanning to help depression, tanning to lose weight and that tanning beds are safe in moderation.

Are tanning beds safe in moderation?

The only way to answer that question is to ask “what is safe?” The answer is: nothing is safe! Everything you do has some level of risk attached to it, including eating a grape and crossing the street.

Instead of asking whether tanning beds are safe, you should be thinking about the level of risk you’re taking with a tanning bed.

We all need to choose our risks, even if it’s just crossing the street. If you choose to use a tanning bed, you need to accept the safety risks, as you do with everything else.

That said, tanning beds are not as good a choice as spray tans, self-tanners, and even tanning outdoors.

In this article we are going to look at how skin tans, how tanning beds work, and the documented risks, so have all the facts you need to make an informed decision about using a tanning bed.


How A Tanning Bed Works

First things first – do you know how a tanning bed works?

Understanding the mechanics of what is actually tanning you, go a long way to understanding how dangerous they are and if you should be using a tanning bed at all.

A tanning bed, sometimes called a sun-bed, is a machine that uses ultraviolet (UV) radiation to trigger cells called melanocytes to produce melanin. Melanin is your body’s defense against UV rays and reacts by producing a brownish pigment on your skin (aka a tan).

A traditional tanning bed bulbs emit 95% UVA and 5% UVB, which is about the same percentage ratio between UVA and UVB rays you would get from the sun. Most of the UVB radiation from the sun is filtered out in the atmosphere before it reaches the earth.

The difference between getting a tan outside and a tan in a tanning bed is that although the percentage between UVA and UVB rays are similar, the ultraviolet rays in a tanning bed are much stronger than those from the sun.

In the last couple of decades, there has been an increased awareness of the health risks of exposure to UV rays, particularly UVB rays, which are the more dangerous and cancer-causing of the two.

Many tanning salons now offer UVA-only tanning beds, called “bronzing beds” or sometimes Instant Tanning Beds.

Despite the fact that a lot of tanning beds today filter out the UVB rays, UVA rays can also lead to premature aging and skin cancer.

And due to the fact that the tanning bed popularity lies in the fact that you can tan faster in a tanning bed than in the sun (especially on higher-level beds), you are increasing your risk of these health hazards. Tanning beds emit up to 12 times more UV light than natural sunlight (depending on the tanning bed).

Look at this chart to see how much more powerful tanning beds are than sunlight, and what the equivalent amounts of time tanning in a tanning bed and in the sun are.

tanning time chart tanning bed vs tanning in the sun

Not only are you increasing your risk of things like early wrinkles and skin cancer by using a tanning bed that emits harmful rays up to 12 X stronger than the sun, eye damage is also one of the health risks of tanning beds that is not often talked about.

You also miss many of the benefits of tanning in the sun when you are in a tanning bed.

How Dangerous Is Using a Tanning Bed?

They’re not good.

Here’s the Traditional Argument:

When it comes to tanning whether it is tanning in the sun or at a tanning salon, there is no such thing as a safe tan. A tan is your skin’s reaction to UV radiation damage. Each time you tan you are accumulating sun damage which can cause wrinkles, sagging skin, sun spots, leathery skin and exponentially increases your risk for all types of skin cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, the vast majority of skin cancer deaths are from melanoma. The majority of melanoma cases are attributable to UV exposure. UV exposure in tanning beds increases the risk of all skin cancers, especially in women 45 and younger. 

According to the Indoor tanning Fact Sheet released by the American Academy of Dematology, just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67%, and basal cell carcinoma by 29%).

The American Academy of Dermatology cites an alarming statistic that one American dies of melanoma every hour.

Tanning beds are so dangerous that they have been reclassified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

What’s the Counter Argument?

The risks from tanning have been studied. What are the risks of sitting inside, under artificial light, for hours on end? What about the risks of being sedentary, playing video games, and eating junk food? We all know this sort of lifestyle is unhealthy, but it doesn’t get the same demonization that tanning does.

We don’t want to stereotype, and it’s always dangerous to do so. But think about an average beach-going tanning enthusiast and an average couch-locked video gamer. In your mind’s eye, which is healthier?

Which one has better mental health, the one soaking up the beautiful rays, smelling the ocean, listening to the crash of the waves, or the one smelling the pizza box and listening to the sound of the enemy team on the TV?

These circumstances are ignored when people point to the bad parts of tanning, and they forget about the good parts of tanning.

These circumstances are ignored when people point to the bad parts of tanning, and they forget about the good parts of tanning.

What Is 10 Minutes On A Sunbed Equivalent To In The Sun?

All that said, there’s no question that tanning outside is much better than tanning in a tanning bed.

Tanning beds don’t generally replicate the effects of the sun exactly. And tanning bulbs are much more powerful than sunlight. 10 minutes in a tanning bed is the equivalent to approximately 2 hours in the sun, which is a lot at one time.

If you’re going to tan outside, you should do it properly to be as safe as possible while reaping the benefits of tanning.

Are Tanning Beds Safe In Moderation?

Both the American Cancer Society and the Skin Cancer Foundation say that there is a 75% increased risk of developing life-threatening melanoma from JUST ONE indoor tanning session before age 35!

So, no, tanning beds are not safe in moderation, if you listen to the skin cancer foundation.

How Can I Tan Safely?

There is no such thing as a perfectly safe activity. As we mentioned above, even just staying still will have long-run impacts on your health.

Instead of demanding absolute safety, you want to take your risks sensibly.

Instead of demanding absolute safety, you want to take your risks sensibly.

But there is a way to get that “just got back from my tropical vacation at the beach” glowing tan, without the exposure to UV radiation and the myriad of health risks associated with it, including premature aging, wrinkles, skin damage and cancer.

Sunless self-tanners and tanning waters are the answer!

Both Sunless self-tanners and tanning waters use DHA as their active “tanning” ingredient.

DHA works by creating a chemical reaction with dead cells on the skin’s surface layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan. Both sunless self-tanners and tanning water take a few hours to develop and last about 7 – 10 days, because this is about the time it takes for your skin to shed.

As you shed dead skin cells, you are shed your tan along with them.

Though both self-tanners and tanning water work the same way, there are some key differences. Tanning water is a water-based clear formula, blended with moisturizing ingredients and it hydrates the skin while creating a temporary simulated tan.

Now while its transparent formula won’t stain clothes and the extra moisturizers will keep skin feeling soft, some still prefer sunless-self tanners over tanning water.

This is because you are able to achieve a darker tan with self-tanners and the added brown pigment in self-tanner formulas make sure you don’t miss a spot or end up streaky.

Both are great products and which one is best is really down to personal preference.

There are lots of different varieties of sunless self tanners on the market, from lotions  and mists  to foams , to mousses  and serums .

And while tanning waters only come in, well water, there are lots of different brands out there that are well worth trying out.

Take Away

Are tanning beds safe in moderation? On the surface, they are not safe, even in moderation. But as we have tried to explain, there is no such thing as true safety, only careful risk. Everyone’s life is full of risk, everything you do has risk. Find the right balance of risk and reward for you.

That said, we would still recommend tanning outside or self-tanners, because tanning beds simply skew to the risky side of the risk/reward ratio.

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).