Millions of Americans use tanning beds (sometimes called sunbeds) or sunlamps to maintain a year-round glow—or, increasingly, to get more vitamin D, which is produced when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, as from sunlight. Some sunlamps are marketed specifically for vitamin D production. And some manufacturers go so far as to claim not only that their tanning beds are safe, but also that they will boost your mood, relieve joint pain, reduce cellulite and even make your skin look younger. Could tanning this way actually be healthy?
The multi-billion-dollar tanning bed industry wants you to think so. In recent years, it has been on the offensive, calling dermatologists, sunscreen manufacturers and health organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Cancer Society the “Sun Scare” industry. Besides blaming them for widespread vitamin D deficiencies, the tanning bed industry argues that the connection between UV exposure and skin cancer has never been proven. If that sounds like tactics used by the tobacco industry a few decades ago, it’s no coincidence.
Representing some 14,000 salon owners, the American Suntanning Association (ASA) was formed in 2012 to promote the benefits of sunlight and tanning beds and to clear what it calls “misinformation” about the risks of UV. The ASA has hired a public relations agency and a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to get its message out to thepublic and find scientists who will present a favorable view of UV exposure. It also plans to fund its own research. The strategy? Shift the debate from the risks of indoor tanning to the potential health benefits—similar to how Big Tobacco once promoted cigarette smoking as beneficial, while attacking mainstream research that showed it was harmful. Since a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 2010, another industry group, the Indoor Tanning Association, has been barred from making false claims about the health effects and safety of indoor tanning, which is perhaps why this new association has sprung up—with some of the same cast of characters.
The tanning industry has also been funding pro-vitamin D groups of late, some of which, in turn, promote UV lamps. Among them is the Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit group that has been a good source of evidence-based information but now has financial ties to two sunlamp manufacturers. Last November, the organization announced a sponsorship with Sperti/KBD, so that it now receives a portion of that company’s sunlamp sales as a “donation.” The Vitamin D Council also receives financial support from Joseph Mercola, D.O., a web marketer of questionable dietary supplements and medical devices (including his own line of expensive sunlamps) and a disseminator of often-dubious health advice.
Here’s a reality check: In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized UV-emitting tanning devices as “carcinogenic to humans”—the highest cancer risk category, on par with cigarettes and asbestos. According to its report, people who start using tanning beds or sunlamps before age 30 increase their risk for melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, by 75 percent. Studies since then have only added to the evidence.
A sunny forecast?
As the sunlamp industry cranks up its pro-tanning tactics, the government is finally cracking down on the devices. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified sunlamp products as Class I medical devices (the same designation as tongue depressors). But at the end of May, the agency reclassified them as Class II (moderate-risk) devices to strengthen oversight of their safety and use and to provide more information to consumers. Sunlamps will now have to undergo pre-market review and meet certain performance specifications. In addition, the FDA is requiring that the products or promotional materials carry certain warnings and contraindications—for instance, advising people with a prior history or family history of skin cancer to avoid them and advising frequent users to have regular skin cancer screenings. Notably, the devices will have to carry a visible, black-box warning stating that they should not be used by children and teenagers under age 18.
Some regulations were already in place at the state level. In California—as well as in Vermont, Texas, Illinois, Nevada and Oregon—anyone under age 18 is prohibited from using tanning beds in commercial facilities. New Jersey and Connecticut's rules ban their use by those under 17. Some other states require minors to have parental consent or a doctor’s prescription. How much these regulations are enforced, though, is questionable—and in at least one state, a survey of salons found that 65 percent allowed kids as young as 10 to tan.
Don’t get burned
Like the American Academy of Dermatology, the World Health Organization and other major health and government groups worldwide, we strongly recommend against indoor tanning. Just because the FDA allows it doesn’t mean it’s safe. Children and adolescents should especially avoid tanning beds, since they are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of UV. If you want to look like you’ve been “kissed by the sun,” check out sunless tanning products. Better yet, instead of being swayed by propaganda that tanned skin looks healthier, learn to love your natural skin tone.
As for vitamin D—which is essential for strong bones and possibly has other health benefits—there is no reason to use a sunlamp, even one that is specially designed for vitamin D production (see box below). The best way to meet your needs is through diet (though few foods naturally contain D) and supplements (which are safe and cheap). We recommend 800 to 1,000 IU a day. We don’t advise strict avoidance of sunlight but do recommend moderation and use of sunscreen, especially during peak sun hours.
Lastly, be wary of websites affiliated with the tanning bed industry. Not only do they spread misleading health claims about tanning, they tend to make vitamin D sound like a cure-all.
Originally published April 2014. Updated June 2014.
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