Can Sunscreen Make a Tanning Bed Safer?

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Some feel that visiting a tanning salon regularly or getting a "base tan" for an upcoming vacation can avoid skin damage or sunburns. Maybe you have heard this and are wondering if wearing sunscreen help.

Using sunscreen in a tanning bed will prevent getting the bronzing of your skin that you are after. In addition, 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.

This article reviews the risks of indoor tanning including skin cancer and premature aging, the mythical base tan, and proven sun protection strategies.

A woman in a tanning bed
okanmetin/Getty Images

Skin Cancer Risks

The primary reason why using tanning beds, with or without sunscreen, is not advised is the risk of skin cancer. 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.

Artificial tanning (including tanning beds, booths, and facial tanners) accounts for over 400,000 skin cancer cases in the United States (U.S.) each year. Over 6,000 of those cases are melanoma.

Premature Aging

Beyond the increased cancer risk, premature aging can be caused by tanning beds. Frequent UV exposure can cause brown spots, lax skin, photodamage, fine lines and wrinkles, and a leather-like texture.

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 who don't tan.

The Mythical Base Tan

It is a common myth that getting a "base tan" before 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.

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 a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before going 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.

Summary

Wearing sunscreen in a tanning bed prevents you from getting the bronze tan you are after. It also fails to protect your skin as it is only effective against natural UV rays.

Tanning beds are not recommended because research repeatedly shows they are not safe. They can cause premature aging and skin cancer.

Some people feel that getting a "base tan" before sun exposure can help protect their skin. However, it is not effective against sunburn, and it is doing more damage than good.

To avoid sunburn or sun damage, it's best to use safe tactics that have been scientifically proven to help protect your skin.

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 in a tanning bed 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.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Le Clair MZ, Cockburn MG. Tanning bed use and melanoma: Establishing risk and improving prevention interventions. Prev Med Rep. 2016;3:139-144. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2015.11.016

  2. World Health Organization. Restricting the use of sunbeds to prevent skin cancerBulletin of the World Health Organization. 2017;95:798–199. doi:10.2471/BLT.17.021217

  3. United States Department of Health and Human Services. Skin cancer. Quick facts from the surgeon general.

  4. Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin cancer facts and statistics

  5. Garone M, Howard J, Fabrikant J. A review of common tanning methods. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015;8(2):43-47.

  6. Brouse CH, Basch CE, Neugut AI. Warning signs observed in tanning salons in New York City: implications for skin cancer prevention. Prev Chronic Dis. 2011;8(4):A88.

  7. Laughter MR, Anderson JB, Aguilera MN, Sadeghpour M, Pugliano-Mauro M. Indoor tanning: Evidence surrounding advertised health claims. Clin Dermatol. 2021;39(5):865-872. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2021.08.015

  8. American Academy of Dermatology. Prevent skin cancer.

  9. Sivamani RK, Crane LA, Dellavalle RP. The benefits and risks of ultraviolet tanning and its alternatives: the role of prudent sun exposure. Dermatol Clin. 2009;27(2):149-54, vi. doi:10.1016/j.det.2008.11.008

  10. Bauer A. 10 tips for protecting your skin from the sun. American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Additional Reading

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed