TANNING MYTH 1
Indoor tanning is not strongly linked to melanoma.
The ITA insists that no proof connects artificial UV light to melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer that is also the second most common cancer for women in their 20s and the third most common cancer for women in their 30s—and that rates of skin cancer today are probably based on having been sunburned 20 to 40 years ago.
But decades of research, including the previously referenced report, have shown that exposure to UV light can lead to melanoma, especially if you’re exposed to it in your teens and/or 20s.
And according to derms, it’s not bad habits from the past driving today’s high melanoma rates—it’s the increase in indoor tanning. “The age-group where we’re seeing melanoma rates increase rapidly is in young women,” explains Darrell Rigel, MD,clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. “They are up to eight times more likely to use tanning beds than young men are.”
Also, Dr. Rigel says that derms are seeing more melanoma cases on body parts that normally get no exposure to the sun, such as the labia, yet are exposed via a sunlamp session.
TANNING MYTH 2
Indoor tanning is an excellent source of hard-to-get vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps build bone and muscle. And there’s no question that you can snag your daily allowance by exposing your skin to UV rays, which prompt your body to create D naturally. But the ITA misleads people into thinking that the vitamin-D connection makes tanning healthy.
It’s not. Besides the damage done to your skin, it’s impossible to know how much UV exposure you get in a tanning bed and if that translates into enough D. “No meter on the tanning device monitors the level of vitamin D your body makes,” says Martin A. Weinstock, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology at Brown University and chair of the American Cancer Society’s skin-cancer advisory committee.
Satisfy your D needs by being outside for 10 minutes per day, three times a week, with or without sunscreen, says Ellen Marmur, MD, chief of dermatologic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC and author of Simple Skin Beauty. Or eat your D; one cup of D-fortified milk has 25%, 1.75 ounces of canned sardines has 63%, and a 3.5-ounce piece of salmon has 90%.
NEED TO KNOW: Indoor Tanning and Melanoma Rates
While rates of indoor tanning have risen by 27% since the 1980s… melanoma cases in young women shot up 50% in the same time period.
TANNING MYTH 3
A base tan will protect you from sun damage when you go outside.
The ITA claims that getting darker via indoor tanning will help safeguard your skin from further harm once you’re exposed to the sun.
True, tanned skin does provide minimal protection. Problem is, any color is proof that your skin has already been damaged. “The base tan doesn’t give you enough future protection to offset the harm already done,” says Albert Lefkovits, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology and co-director of the cosmetic dermatology surgery program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in NYC.
“When you expose your skin to UV rays,” says Dr. Rigel, “your body perceives that it’s being assaulted and produces melanin—a pigment produced by skin cells—to protect itself. Those pigments are a sign that serious damage has been done.”
Also, not everyone can become tan. People with fair skin may go from white to lobster red. If they tried to get a base tan indoors, their skin would fry.
TANNING MYTH 4
Tanning beds are safer than the sun, since you control the UV level.
The reasoning behind this myth: The time you spend under a sunlamp can be adjusted based on skin type and the intensity of the equipment. So if you keep your UV exposure low enough to achieve the color you want, you will avoid being burned.
But this “control” is not all it’s cracked up to be. “The intensity of the UV radiation is variable, generally not monitored by staffers, and unknown to the person receiving it,” says Dr. Weinstock. “That’s why burns from tanning devices are surprisingly common.”
Also, the bulbs used in tanning equipment are typically two to three times more intense than natural sunlight, says Dr. Rigel. Translation: One minute in a tanning bed may grill your skin the same way two to three minutes in bright, hot sun does.
Most important, this myth obscures the crucial point: When it comes to UV rays, there’s no such thing as a healthy or responsible level. “Any amount of UV exposure raises your skin-cancer risk,” says Dr. Weinstock.
TANNING MYTH 5
Indoor tanning offers positive psychological benefits.
The ITA contends that basking in UV light boosts the production of mood-enhancing hormones called endorphins as well as levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is associated with feelings of bliss.
Though some studies and derms back up these claims—and many indoor and outdoor tanners say they look and feel heathier and sexier while sporting a bronzed look—research isn’t conclusive.
Whatever the psychological effects may or may not be, think about it: Aren’t there easier, less wrinkle- and cancer-courting ways to hike serotonin and endorphin production and pump your hotness quotient? Yeah, we thought so.
If you do find yourself craving light exposure due to the winter blues, take a walk in the sunshine—armed with a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, of course—or just enjoy being outdoors without being directly in the sun.
And if a golden glow makes you feel more attractive and sexier, check out the newest crop of self-tanners. Most contain a bronzer, so you get natural-looking color right away, as well as fragrance to mask that self-tanner odor. Plus, many are now packaged as presoaked towelettes and quick-drying foams, so no more brown gunk rubbing off on your hands and clothes. It’s easier than ever to look sun-kissed without risking your life. when you go outside.