Can Sunscreen Make a Tanning Bed Safer?

That 'base tan' is not as effective as you think

Young woman laying on sunbed
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Protecting your skin from the sun is important and sunscreen is your first line of defense. One common question people have is whether or not it can be used in a tanning bed. The quick answer is that using sunscreen contradicts the reason you might consider tanning in the first place: it will not help you establish a tan.

Additionally, tanning beds are a popular way to develop what many people call a "base tan" prior to going on vacation. Whether it's a cruise or a beach destination where ultraviolet (UV) rays are more intense than what you're used to, it's a common belief that laying a tanned foundation on your skin will prevent sunburns. This is a myth and you may actually be doing your skin more harm than good.

Let's explore why tanning beds are not a great idea and how you can truly protect your pale skin on your next vacation by using basic sun protection strategies.

Sunscreen Is Not for Tanning Beds

Using sunscreen in a tanning bed would not result in a tan. Tanning beds use bulbs that emit artificial UV rays which are sometimes stronger than the sun. Sunscreen is effective because it blocks UV rays. Therefore, wearing sunscreen would defeat the purpose of using a tanning bed. With that in mind, we must also consider the risks involved with tanning in general.

Skin Cancer Risks

The primary reason why using tanning beds, with or without sunscreen, are not advised is due to the risk of developing skin cancer. Research has repeatedly shown that tanning beds are not safe. They increase your 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 the United States, Europe, and Australia and is dominated by young people, particularly women.

Premature Aging

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

Unfortunately, human skin isn't very forgiving when it's 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 sunburns. 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 a tan is 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 their skin, they are actually doing more harm than good. They are often surprised that they still get sunburned, despite having a "base tan."

Proven Sun Protection

To avoid burning, it's a better idea to practice sun safety tactics that have been proven to be effective in protecting your skin. Your primary line of defense is to apply sunscreen when outdoors, and to apply it frequently.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends applying an SPF 30 level sunscreen to your skin. Higher SPF levels are available but offer only a minimal amount of increased protection. Stick with SPF 30 or higher and you will have sun protection as long as you apply it correctly and follow the manufacturer's instructions for reapplying.

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. SPF bathing suits are available as well.
  • Stay in the shade by sitting under an umbrella, awning, or another shady area
  • 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 really are not advised in the medical community. The risk of skin cancer is too great, even with minimum use. The strategy of using sunscreen will not help, either. Instead, it's best to reserve that for your vacation or anytime you spend time outside.

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Article Sources
  • American Academy of Dermatology. Skin Cancer: Incident Rates. 2017.
  • American Academy of Dermatology. Prevent Skin Cancer. 2017.
  • Bauer A. 10 Tips for Protecting Your Skin From the Sun. American Society of Clinical Oncology. 2015.
  • World Health Organization. Restricting the Use of Sunbeds to Prevent Skin Cancer. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 2017;95:798–199. doi: 10.2471/BLT.17.021217.