Is tanning as bad for your health as sunburn? Isn’t it good to get vitamin D from sun exposure?
Although indoor tanning rates have declined in the United States, many people still try to tan outdoors. According to a National Cancer Institute analysis of data from the 2020 National Health Survey, about 39 percent of women and 29 percent of men in the United States had intentionally attempted an outdoor tan in the past year.
But while tanned skin doesn’t hurt or flake like sunburn, it’s still harmful, experts say. “If skin could talk, it would say ‘Ouch! every time you tan,” said Maral Skelsey, a dermatologist at Georgetown University.
In fact, according to Skelsey, tanned skin is the result of skin injury; the extra pigmentation is the skin’s attempt to protect itself from further damage.
Tanning can cause skin cancer, among other things
Sunburn has long been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer, but tanning also increases the risk, said Patricia Farris, a dermatologist in Metairie, Louisiana.
Tanning and sunburn are due to exposure to two types of ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun. Ultraviolet B rays (UVB) cause sunburn, and ultraviolet A rays (UVA) penetrate deeper and cause tanning. Both types of ultraviolet rays can cause DNA mutations that increase cancer risk, Farris said.
“When indoor tanning became popular, the idea spread that it was safe to do it as long as you didn’t burn yourself,” he explained. “Almost immediately, dermatologists began treating younger and younger patients with various types of skin cancer, and melanoma in particular.”
According to Min Deng, a dermatologist at Medstar Health in Chevy Chase, Maryland, UVA radiation damages the skin in other ways as well. “There’s a whole range of molecular consequences,” he said, adding that not only does UVA radiation directly damage DNA, but it also suppresses the immune system in a way that also increases the risk of cancer.