UVA rays and tanning beds: what no one ever explains to you!

Maria (not her real name) is one of my patients who loved the sun and enjoyed spending hours at the beach. When she was a teenager, there was a popular trend among her friends to use UVA rays in the tanning beds for a quicker and more beautiful tan

Unfortunately, Maria did not realize the damage she was causing to her skin. Years later, when she was in her 30s, she came to our office because she didn't like a mole she was growing and I diagnosed melanoma. She was terrified by the news and wondered how she could have been so reckless with her health.

Fortunately, we were able to perform surgery for this skin cancer and the sentinel node study was negative for melanoma metastasis. However, now Maria has to have a strict follow-up in our hospital to be sure that her melanoma does not come back. 

As many of my patients commented to me: "I wish I had had more information on the risks associated with tanning booth use and sun exposure."

I am Dr. Sebastian Podlipnik, a dermatologist specializing in skin cancer and currently working at the Hospital Clínic in Barcelona. I am committed to provide the best medical care for my patients by informing them properly to help them prevent and treat skin cancer.

Illustration showing a couple using UVA rays from tanning beds.

What will I talk about in this article?

In this article I will tell you what is never explained to you when performing UVA rays. of tanning beds, as well as explaining all the myths that exist around this practice. 

And I will start by telling you the most important conclusion of this blog: Studies have conclusively shown that people exposed to artificial tanning during their youth are at the highest risk of developing skin cancer.

People exposed to tanning beds during adolescence are at the highest risk of developing skin cancer in the future.

What are UVA Rays?

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a form of invisible light emitted by the sun. Ultraviolet radiation is divided into three types: UVA, UVB and UVC. 

  • UVA and UVB radiation can penetrate the atmosphere and reach the Earth's surface. Exposure to this type of radiation can cause skin damage such as sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer and other diseases.
  • UVC radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere and therefore cannot affect us. 

The tanning booths use fluorescent bulbs that produce a large amount of UVA radiation.with a lower amount of UVB. This UVA radiation is up to three times more intense than natural sunlight, and even the intensity of UVB can be comparable to that of intense sunlight. 

Illustration showing how grape rays penetrate the skin.

Are UVA rays good?

Multiple research has shown that tanning is the result of DNA damage to skin cells caused by UVA and UVB rays. This damage can cause mutations that lead to cancer. Therefore, the tanning is the result of the damage we are producing to our DNA while tanning.

What does the World Health Organization (WHO) say about tanning beds?

As more and more young people, especially women, began to expose themselves to artificial ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds, the health risks quickly became apparent. This has led to artificial tanning being considered a major public health problem, with about half a million new skin cancer diagnoses attributed to it each year in the United States, Europe and Australia. 

The World Health Organization has determined that the Indoor tanning devices are carcinogenic, placing them in the same category as tobacco. 

While Brazil and Australia have taken the lead in UVA legislation, banning tanning salons altogether, other nations have also taken steps to protect their citizens by banning minors from using tanning beds. 

Specifically, in Barcelona, Spain, there is a current legislation on tanning booths which states that exposure to artificial ultraviolet radiation is prohibited for children under 18 years of age and is not advisable for pregnant women, among other measures.

What scientific evidence is there on UVA rays and skin cancer?

I don't want to get too long in this section but I think it is always important to give evidence-based options with scientific studies to back up our comments.

Research has indicated that the use of indoor tanning devices for exposure to UV radiation is associated with an elevated risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, as well as other forms of non-melanoma skin cancer. Here are just a few of the studies (there are many more):

  1. Indoor tanning has been associated with an increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma in 58% and basal cell carcinoma in 24%.Quote
  2.  The use of tanning beds before the age of 20 years may increase by 47% the chances of developing melanoma.Quote
  3. The women under 30 years of age are six times more likely to develop melanoma if tanning indoors.Quote
  4. Even people who do not burn after indoor tanning or sun exposure have an increased risk of melanoma if they tan indoors. Quote
  5. Indoor tanning is also associated with an increased risk of being diagnosed with melanoma more than once in your lifetime. Quote

I'm not worried about skin cancer and I want to keep tanning!

It is not uncommon to hear this in my practice, even in patients who have already had more than one skin cancer. Undoubtedly, there are people who prefer to take these behaviors and take responsibility for the consequences. Just like smoking, the decision to protect the skin must always come from the patient, and physicians have an obligation to inform patients of all the possible risks associated with this behavior. 

Fortunately, these patients are the fewest, and usually when we diagnose a skin cancer or do a treatment to improve the photodamage accumulated over the years, my patients tell me that they wish they had started taking care of themselves earlier.

However, it is important for you to know that sunbathing or exposure to UVA rays will not only be associated with skin cancer, but also with many other events.

What are the "other" consequences of using UVA rays?

One of the great problems of exposure to UV rays is that they generate mutations in the DNA of our skin. These mutations accumulate progressively until they manifest themselves at some point in our lives. This is why we dermatologists always say that "SKIN HAS MEMORY".  

The big problem with using The main reason for not exposing ourselves to UVA rays or to the sun for tanning is that we will not see the damage until years later. It is because of them, that for many of my patients it is difficult to quantify the magnitude of what they are doing because they don't see it when they are young. 

Illustration showing the main damage caused by the sun

Woman modeling sun damage caused by not using the best sunscreens

Just as smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, sun exposure is a crucial risk factor for the development of skin cancer. You may not be unlucky enough to suffer from it directly, but there are other unavoidable consequences. All of these manifestations are known as ".photoaging".

To see it a little better I will leave you some pictures with some examples of the most common manifestations of photodamage:

Stained neckline

cleavage of a patient with many sunspots or sun lentigines

Veins on the face

Facial blemishes caused by sun exposure. Before the procedure

Premalignant lesions

Actinic keratosis on a patient's nose

Cancerization field

Photos of a patient with chronic actinic damage and multiple actinic keratoses.

Then in summary we will note the other risks of UV exposure are:

  • Premature aging is a common consequence of tanning. Skin loses elasticity and wrinkles prematurely, which can lead to a leathery appearance years after you started sunbathing.  
  • Immunosuppression at the skin level. In addition, UV radiation can suppress the proper functioning of the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to disease and infection, including skin cancer. 
  • Appearance of premalignant lesions such as actinic keratoses. 
  • Allergic eruptions. Some people who are particularly sensitive to UV radiation may experience itchy red rashes and other adverse effects.
  • Ocular alterations. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can also cause irreversible damage to eyesight. 

So what is the best alternative to tanning beds?

Fortunately, there is a safer alternative: self-tanner. If applied correctly, self-tanner can give you the look of a tan without the harmful side effects. 

For best results, be sure to use a sunscreen that offers broad spectrum protection, SPF 30 or higher and water resistance. Keep in mind that self-tanner cannot protect your skin from the sun, so be sure to always wear sunscreen. 

With the right application, you can enjoy a natural-looking tan without orange peel, streaks or blotchiness.

My self-tanning recommendations

My recommendations for body self-tanning products are:

As for the facial self-tannersmy favorites are:

I've already used tanning beds and I'm worried about my health!

First of all, you must remain calm. While we know that tanning booths increase the risk of developing skin cancer, chances are you won't get it because you've been exposed to a few sessions of UV rays. 

However, if you are concerned, the best thing to do is to visit a dermatologist so that he/she can check your moles and spots. I also leave you the sNext article where I talk in depth about how to identify a malignant mole. 

Many of my patients have already started to protect themselves from the sun and thus reduce the consequences of ultraviolet radiation, having a healthy skin and reducing the risk of skin cancer. 

Myths about UV rays and tanning beds.

Are tanning beds really safer than the sun? Can indoor tanning help the body produce the necessary amount of vitamin D? Does my skin age faster when using tanning booths?

AYears of scientific research have provided answers to these and other questions about artificial tanning that are important for you to know.Quote 

1- Tanning beds are safer than sunbathing


There are no beds, booths or sunlamps that are safe. Different scientific studies that I have shown you in this article confirm an increased risk of melanoma in users of tanning booths. 

2- UVA rays make your skin age faster.


As you tan, you accumulate ultraviolet radiation in your skin. Depending on each person's genetics, sooner or later you will begin to see the signs of aging such as wrinkles, age spots and loss of skin elasticity much sooner than those who do not tan. In addition, you may develop "leathery" skin, something that is not experienced by those who take care of themselves and protect themselves.

3- UVA rays are very good because they will help me to generate a lot of vitamin D.


Have you ever been told that sunbeds are a good source of vitamin D? Unfortunately, this is not true. The lamps used in tanning beds emit mainly UVA light, which is not the type of light that the body needs to produce vitamin D. Instead, the body needs UVB light to produce this vitamin. Want to know all about vitamin D? Read my article on this topic. 

4- In tanning salons, it has been common to provide customers with inaccurate and misleading information.


In a number of studies, it was found that 90% of tanning salon staff claimed that indoor tanning is not a risk for the development of skin cancer. And, surprisingly, many of them even went so far as to claim that tanning has many health benefits.Quote  

5- Addiction to tanning is a real risk that should not be overlooked.


There is evidence to suggest that tanning can be addictive for some people. Tanning addicts find it difficult to stop, and may experience restlessness or depression when they do not receive their regular dose of UV rays.

These are the main myths I hear daily about tanning booths. Undoubtedly there are many more and if you want me to comment on any particular one you can write it in the comments. 

Conclusions on tanning beds and UVA rays

Many people resort to tanning beds to achieve a perfect tan, but this can lead to a high risk of premature wrinkles, tanned skin, skin blemishes, photoaging and skin cancer. 

It is never too late to start taking precautions to protect your skin from the sun and tanning beds. The moment you start doing so, your body begins to repair the damage already caused by UV rays.

Many of my patients have already started to protect themselves from the sun and thus reduce the consequences of ultraviolet radiation, having a healthy skin and reducing the risk of skin cancer. 


Cover image downloaded from Freepik.com

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Sebastian Podlipnik - Skin cancer

Sebastian Podlipnik

Dermatology Blog

I am a dermatologist and cum laude MD and author of multiple research studies. I specialize in skin cancer, laser technologies and cosmetic dermatology. The intention of this blog is to bring you closer to topics of interest in dermatology and research.

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