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The Tanning Bed Controversy (Skin Cancer)
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The Tanning Bed Controversy

Richard Thomas, MD, FRCPC

Tanning beds have been a source of controversy for some time, and there has been a lot of misinformation surrounding its benefits and risks. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently made a recommendation that sun beds should be banned for people who are 18 and under, as younger people are at an increased risk of skin cancer by early exposure to ultraviolet light. A direct link between the use of tanning beds and skin cancer has been demonstrated. Due to its inherent danger, and the draw for young people to enhance the look on their skin by a tan, there is a movement to ban the use of tanning beds for those under 18. In France and California, the ban has already taken place, and other jurisdictions are also taking this prohibition into consideration.

Repeated sun bed use can cause the skin to show symptoms of premature aging such as broken blood vessels, brown patches, and wrinkles due to sun damage. Repeated exposure to UVA and UVB light from sun beds increase the risk of skin cancer, especially a potentially fatal type of skin cancer called melanoma. Many people who use sun beds use them in addition to regular sun exposure, as a way of supplementing their sun tan.

The Evidence: Sun beds versus natural sunlight

  • UVA is the wavelength used in sun beds. The dosages of UVA used are higher than that found in sunlight, and is thought to be an important cause of melanoma.
  • Unlike naturally produced tans, sun bed produced tans do not help protect the skin from the sun.
  • Tans produced from sun beds have about a fifth or a tenth of the efficacy in skin protection due to the lack of UVB light.
  • UVA plays the leading role in producing premature aging.

Other dangers:

Both UVA and UVB light are immunosuppressant, meaning that it weakens the immune system. Protective white cells called lymphocytes are often weakened and prevented from working on the skin surface. This is the reason that people will often develop cold sores following prolonged sun exposure—their immunity around the skin has weakened, allowing the herpes virus to multiply. This effect is sometimes used as a treatment method by dermatologists, for those who suffer from overactive immune systems at the skin surface, such as those who suffer from psoriasis or eczema. UV is often used to suppress the overactive immune system to reduce the symptoms.

Certain medications cause photosensitivity, making our skin more susceptible to sunburn and other forms of sun damage. These are common in anti-acne creams, and retinoid creams. If you are using such medications, sun beds, as well as exposure to regular sunlight should be entirely avoided. Disease such as lupus, are also activated UV light.


There will be diverging views on the balance between free choice and sensible protection of the young. Given potential health hazards, it isn’t unreasonable to make an argument against the banning of sun beds for young people. Alcohol and cigarettes are already restricted to adults who can make conscious and informed decisions about these known risks. It’s a good time to examine whether the same can be said of tanning beds.


skin cancer,   UVA,   UVB,