Help, My Eyes Hurt From a Tanning Bed!

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So you’ve just done a tanning session at your local tanning salon, but the experience has left your eyes hurting.

Though it is highly advised to wear tanning bed goggles, the fact that they look a bit silly and can leave you with a funny, raccoon-like tan around your eyes has a lot of people not using them. Because after all, you can just close your eyes, right?

Not so fast!

In this article, we are going to take a look at the reasons your eyes hurt from 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, will go a long way to figuring out not only why your eyes are hurting, but to maybe think twice 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 (a.k.a. a tan).

A traditional tanning bed emits somewhere around 95% UVA and 5% UVB. This is about the same percentage ratio between UVA and UVB rays you would get from walking outside on a sunny day. Bronzing beds use a different ratio of UVA to UVB.

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.

Tanning bed manufacturers, in an attempt to salvage their industry in a time where people are becoming much more health-conscious and informed, have developed a series of filters to eliminate UVB rays.

Many tanning salons now offer UVA-only tanning beds. But these don’t produce the same Vitamin D response and are a different experience than full-spectrum 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, you are increasing your risk of these health hazards. Because tanning beds emit anywhere from 12 to 100 times more UV light than natural sunlight (depending on the tanning bed).

You are increasing your risk of things like early wrinkles and skin cancer by using a tanning bed that emits harmful rays up to 100 X stronger than the sun.

That said, we all take risks every day, including walking across the street, eating food, and breathing. It’s a dangerous world, and we all need to pick the risks we take.

All that said, eye damage is also one of the health risks of tanning beds that is not often talked about.

Eyes Hurt from a Tanning Bed

Tanning Bed Goggles

Although just closing your eyes when you use a tanning bed might seem like problem solved, our eyelids are not enough protection against tanning bulb UV rays.

They can pass through our eyelids and damage our eyes. This is over and above the fact that the thin skin on the eyelids burns easily. Eyelid burns are painful!

UVA rays can pass through your eyelids and lead to photokeratitis, a painful eye condition that affects the cornea (clear, protective layer around the eye) and the conjunctiva (cell layer that covers the insides of the eyelids and whites of the eye).

Photokeratitis was explained by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) as being like a “sunburned eye”, and is sorta similar to snowblindness.

And you thought a skin sunburn was painful! What makes it worse is that photokeratitis is not usually detected until well after the damage has been done.

Tanning Bed Eye Damage Symptoms

Symptoms of photokeratitis include:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Blurry vision
  • Tearing
  • Gritty feeling, like something in your eye
  • Swelling
  • Light sensitivity
  • Headache
  • Halos
  • Small pupils
  • Twitching eyelids
  • Temporary vision loss or color change (rare)

The UV light in tanning beds is so strong that even closing your eyes during a tanning session won’t protect them. If you are experiencing some or all of the symptoms above, the source of your eye pain is most likely photokeratitis.

Though photokeratitis is the most common form of eye damage caused by tanning beds, it is not the only one. A few of the other eye health problems that can result from tanning beds are cataracts, macular degeneration, dry eye, and blurry vision. 

UV Light Eye Exposure First Aid

Although painful, the good news is photokeratitis will not cause long-term damage and will heal within a few days. Here are a few things you can do to relieve the pain and discomfort while you give your eyes a chance to heal:

  • Apply cool, wet compresses to the eyes
  • Use artificial tears
  • Seek isolation in a dark room
  • Do not wear contact lenses
  • Wear sunglasses
  • Avoid rubbing the eyes
  • If you feel the case is severe, see your ophthalmologist who may prescribe medicated eye drops.

How to Protect Eyes In Tanning Bed

Prevention is the best medicine. Not using a tanning bed is the best way to protect your eyes (and skin).

If you do choose to go against the advice of basically every health and medical professional on earth and choose to use a tanning bed, at the very least always wear tanning bed goggles specifically intended for indoor tanning.

And be sure to wear them properly to completely cover your eyelids.

These work well:

Super Sunnies EVO FLEX UV Eye Protection FDA compliant Flexible Tanning Goggles Eyeshields, 4-Pack
  • EVO EYESHIELDS: Super Sunnies tanning...
  • UV PROTECTION: Evo tanning bed goggles...
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Sunglasses are not enough to fully protect your eyes from the UV rays produced by a tanning bed.

Alternative to tanning beds

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.

Compared to tanning in the sun, exposure to UV rays in tanning beds exponentially increases the risk of all skin cancers, including melanoma, Basal cell carcinoma, Squamous cell carcinoma and Merkel cell cancer, which are also types of skin cancers you are more at risk of, if you’re tanning. 

Okay so tanning beds are dangerous and can lead to a multitude of skin and eye problems, not to mention lots of cancer, but still looking for that glowing bronzed skin? Don’t worry – there are much safer alternatives!

First off, go get a spray tan!

And of course, self-tanners and body bronzers are a perfect alternative to get that tropical vacation glow without ever leaving your house.

Both are meant to mimic the sun’s natural tanning effect on your skin, and both come without the health risks of using a tanning bed.

Self Tanners

Self-tanner is basically a suntan in a bottle. There are lots of different varieties of sunless self tanners on the market, from lotions and mists to foams, mousses, and serums, and most recently tanning water.

Self tanners darken your skin by using DHA. DHA reacts with dead cells on the skin’s surface layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan. They last for about 5-7 days.

Here are a few excellent self-tanners to check out, which we have thoroughly reviewed.


Bronzers are another way to add color without sun. These products work like makeup and will wash off in the shower. Body bronzers come in powder, mist, and lotion forms. You can also choose between matte and shimmery finishes.

Essentially bronzers are a topical cosmetic that contains a translucent color that temporarily darkens the surface of your skin, and can be washed off.

 ***It’s important to note that most self-tanners and bronzers do not provide you with sun protection. You still need to use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 if you are spending time outside in the sun.

Take Away

If your eyes hurt from a tanning bed, it’s probably either due to having burned your eyelids and/or photokeratitis, which is like an eyeball sunburn.

Just closing your eyes is not enough protection from the incredibly strong UV rays in a tanning bed. It’s those rays that can also lead to pre-mature again, cancers as well as other long-term eye problems.

The standard advice is to stay away from tanning beds altogether, but you need to make your own choices. If you are going to use a tanning bed, you need to use goggles.

And remember, you don’t have to choose between your health and looking good! You can still get a great-looking tan without UV damage if you opt for a sunless self-tanner or bronzer. 

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).