Suntanning and Tanning Booths

Note: If you have a question regarding skin changes (for example, rashes, blotching, spots) as a result of tanning, it should be directed to a dermatologist or your local physician. The Health Physics Society is unable to offer medical advice.

How does a tanning bed work?
In tanning booths it is the ultraviolet (UV) light bulbs emitting UV radiation that causes the tanning. This, essentially, is artificially produced UV light similar to that coming from the sun.
Does a tanning bed cause skin cancer?
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation has been associated with an increased risk of skin cancer by epidemiological studies that have looked at causal factors in individuals who have skin cancer. Major scientific and medical organizations have concurred that UV radiation causes an increased risk of skin cancer and recommend limiting your exposure to UV—both from natural sunlight as well as from tanning booths.
How long would you have to stay inside a tanning booth for it to cause cancer?
Sufficient exposure in a tanning bed carries a higher risk of getting skin cancer. The exposure-versus-risk relationship is not well defined so it is not known how long one must use a tanning bed before one might get skin cancer.
Which type of tanning causes more damage to the skin and is most harmful—tanning beds or suntanning?
The reaction of a person to ultraviolet light with respect to tanning or sunburning is thought to be similar regardless of the source of the exposure.
I only want to use a tanning bed for a few times before going on vacation. Is this okay?
Expert bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration do recommend that tanning booths should be avoided. This does not mean that everyone who uses a tanning booth will have an adverse health effect. Likewise, people who go out in the sunlight unprotected from the UV will not all suffer harmful effects. Of course, we should be aware that some harmful effects like skin cancer take many years to appear.

Expert recommendations are made based on health studies from large groups of people. And among large groups of people, it has been found that there is a significant increase in the risk of harmful health effects from UV light. The risk of harmful effects is not 100% even if you are exposed to UV every day, and the risk cannot be reduced to zero even if you completely eliminate UV exposure. But what you can do is minimize your risk by taking reasonable measures such as avoiding unnecessary or excessive exposure.
Are you restricted from using tanning beds while on certain medications?
In making these types of decisions, it is a good idea to consult your physician to identify individual risk factors you need to consider.
Can tanning in a tanning bed harm sperm?
Ultraviolet radiation does not penetrate to any significant depth in the body. Therefore, there would be little or no risk to sperm.
Can tanning beds affect your ovaries or increase complications with pregnancies?
Ultraviolet radiation does not penetrate to any significant depth in the body. Therefore, there would be little or no risk to the ovaries. Also, there is no evidence to suggest that exposure increases pregnancy complications.
Can tanning beds cause eye damage?
The cornea and lens of the eye absorb ultraviolet light wavelengths. If there is a significant exposure to the cornea, it can cause a corneal burn that is quite painful but does repair itself. If the lens is exposed to ultraviolet light in a significant amount or chronically, cataracts can form.
Can tanning beds affect your bone marrow?
Ultraviolet radiation does not penetrate deeply enough into the skin to affect internal organs, including bone marrow.
Can tanning beds affect breast milk for nursing mothers?
The ultraviolet exposure from tanning beds will not affect a mother's breast milk.
If we use sunblock to protect ourselves, are we safe from skin cancer?
Sunblock will help mitigate exposure to UV rays, but is not totally effective in preventing skin cancer. One of the primary reasons is that it wears off and needs to be reapplied. If sunscreen is not applied often enough, it may give a false sense of security leading to even more time in the sun.
What type of sunblocker is best?
The more opaque the sunscreen the better. Not all sunscreens are equally effective. Some sunscreens are manufactured to block short-wave ultraviolet (UVB) radiation, which damages the skin's surface and causes redness and burning. Yet it is the longer-wave ultraviolet (UVA) radiation that penetrates deeper into the skin. Unfortunately, UVA radiation is less likely to cause noticeable sunburn symptoms, even though it severely damages the elastic fibers and collagen and is significant in producing malignant melanoma. The best sunscreens block both UVB and UVA rays. Both avobenzone and benzophenone are good UVA blockers. For maximum benefits, sunscreen must be applied evenly to cool, dry skin 30 minutes before sun exposure. Waterproof and water-resistant sunscreens are best since effectiveness is not reduced by perspiration.
Will general clothing worn outdoors stop ultraviolet radiation?
While outdoors one needs to know that different fabrics have different protection levels, the tighter the weave the greater the protection level. In addition, dark colors of the same material tend to absorb/block more ultraviolet (UV) radiation than light colors. Many fabrics tend to have a lower protection factor when wet. UV absorbers can be added to materials by clothing manufactures to enhance UV protection and those are sold specifically as UV-blocking clothing (and they are generally more expensive).
The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.