Can Sunscreen Make a Tanning Bed Safer?

A woman in a tanning bed

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Maybe you visit a tanning salon regularly or do so in hopes of getting a "base tan" for an upcoming vacation, but are concerned about damage to your skin. Aside from the fact that using sunscreen in a tanning bed won't result in the bronzing of your skin that you are after, sunscreen is only effective at blocking natural UV rays—not the artificial ones emitted by tanning bed bulbs, which are sometimes stronger (and more dangerous) than the sun.

Skin Cancer Risks

The primary reason why using tanning beds, with or without sunscreen, is not advised is the risk of skin cancer that it poses. Research has repeatedly shown tanning beds are not safe. They increase the risk of skin cancer, particularly melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer that can be life-threatening. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), artificial tanning (including tanning beds, booths, and facial tanners) accounts for 450,000 non-melanoma skin cancer cases and over 10,000 melanoma cases each year. This statistic includes people in the United States, Europe, and Australia and is dominated by young individuals, particularly women.

Premature Aging

Beyond the increased cancer risk, premature aging can be caused by tanning beds. Through frequent UV exposure, the skin can become wrinkled, appear to have a leather-like texture, and lose elasticity.

Unfortunately, human skin isn't very forgiving when damaged by UV exposure and it can only be corrected by cosmetic surgery. Men and women who tan regularly, either in tanning beds or outdoors, can look much older than their peers of the same age who don't tan.

The Mythical "Base Tan"

It is a common myth that getting a "base tan" before going on vacation will protect you from sunburn. The testaments of travelers who frequent tropical destinations sound convincing, but they are more likely due to diligent sunscreen use rather than any pre-established tan. After all, the fear of getting a sunburn is a great motivator to be more meticulous about applying sunscreen.

The American Academy of Dermatology points out that tans are actually evidence of skin damage caused by UV ray exposure, whether it's artificial or natural.

When people are trying to establish a base tan to protect the skin, they are actually doing more harm than good—and they are often surprised when they still get sunburned.

Proven Protection

To avoid burning, it's a better idea to practice sun safety tactics that have been proven effective in protecting the skin. Your primary line of defense is to apply sunscreen when outdoors and apply it frequently. And as far as using a tanning bed goes, avoid it entirely.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends applying an SPF 30-level sunscreen to the skin when outdoors. Higher SPF levels are available but offer only a minimal amount of increased protection.

Other sun-savvy tips include:

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face.
  • Cover areas of exposed skin when you're outdoors.
  • Wear clothing with built-in SPF.
  • Stay in the shade by sitting under an umbrella, awning, or other shady areas.
  • Avoid midday sun when the UV rays are more intense.
  • Wear UV-protective sunglasses to shield your eyes.

A Word From Verywell

While tanning beds seem like a quick way to get a tan, they are not advised by medical professionals. The risk of skin cancer is too great, even with minimal use. The strategy of using sunscreen will not help, either. Practice sun safety to protect your skin when outdoors. And if you just can help but want a sun-kissed complexion, consider using bronzing make-up.

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