Benefits of Tanning: Sexy Looks at a Deadly Cost.

benefits of tanning

(image credit: Maegan Tintari)

[Note: “Benefits of Tanning” is the very first article of the brand new “The Truth About Pretty” series. In this series, I’ll be examining our beauty practices and whether they are healthy, or effective. I’ll also be asking questions about body image and the role of beauty in our lives. Since it’s summer, I’m kicking it off by discussing the Nr. #1 trend of every summer: Tanning.] 

When I get tanned in the summer I get compliments about my nice “bronze color.” Contrary, if I look white I get comments that I should “get out in the sun” or “go to the beach” more often.

Yet this trend, the fashion of bronze skin, comes at a cost, a deadly cost. It’s time we change fashion and stop this trend before it hurts even more people.

I understand that we love the sun. I certainly do. Sunlight boosts our mood, not to mention that it helps our body produce Vitamin D.

Yet, thousands are dying because of it.

In fact, the sun does not only increase our risk of skin cancer, but it also ages our skin faster. Photo aging, what most skin care cremes try to correct, is obviously caused by the sun.

In this article I’ll talk about the questionable benefits of tanning and the very real risks posed on our health. In next week’s article I’ll target the accelerated aging caused by sun exposure. So stay tuned!

Benefits of tanning: Looking sexy. But at what cost?

Tanned bronze skin often emits this healthy glow, don’t you think? Only this “healthy” glow should be from now on interpreted as sickly glow.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer (source: American Cancer Society). Tanning, or sun-exposure, immediately increases our risk for the most common type of cancer. Yet people don’t get concerned with that.

They are not at fault; they just don’t comprehend the risks while being bombarded by images of “sun-kissed” bodies. They don’t know that Ultraviolet radiation is recognized as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the world’s authority on cancer research.

And I’ll admit it. I used to be one of them. Years ago I would try to get tanned in the summer – even looking forward to it. When a friend, who was diligently putting her sunscreen on, inquired whether I was worried about skin cancer, I said I wasn’t.

Didn’t I know that sun-exposure increases skin cancer risk? Yes I did. However, I brushed it off, thinking that I didn’t get burned easily anyway so I felt kind of protected. Wrong.

You see, I didn’t know that skin cancer was NOT some rare type of cancer. In 2015, an estimated 73,870 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the US. The most common types of skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma (source: American Cancer Society). Melanoma accounts for less than 2% of skin cancer cases, but it’s the most deadly ones, at least for whites.

I also didn’t know that skin cancer rates were increasing every year. According to the CDC melanoma rates increased 1.6% every year between 2001 and 2011 among white women. Evidence suggests that melanoma rates are actually doubling every 10-20 years. It’s no coincidence that skin cancer has been called an epidemic.

I didn’t know these facts, and that’s why I was under the impression that a little bit of “color” in the summer was ok.

Because I’m white, this article mostly talks about the effects of tanning on white people. African Americans, even though not immune, have a better natural protection by producing melanin that provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of 13.4 compared to 3.4 for whites. That’s also true for Hispanics and people with olive skin. Still, no-one is immune to skin cancer, so don’t think that just because you’re not white you’re protected.

Why Indoor Tanning should be banned

I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan. Facing the war on Middle Earth, Elrond wanting his daughter Arwen to choose safety over love and leave Middle Earth for good, advises her:

Arwen, there is nothing for you here… only death.

I was never an indoor tanning fan, but after doing this research, I can confidently advise the indoor tanning users. “There is nothing for you here people, only death.”

As if actual sun exposure was not enough, indoor tanning is here to make matters worse.

Remember how I said earlier that melanoma rates increase by 1.6% every year? It’s worse for women younger than 44 (source: 2015 study published in Dermatologic Clinics):

 There is a 6.1% annual increase in US incidence of melanomas in white women younger than age 44, with growing concern that increases in skin cancer in younger women may reflect recent trends in indoor tanning. Melanoma incidence is also greater in higher economic groups.

But, you may say, this doesn’t prove it’s indoor tanning to blame. That’s only a possible explanation. Indoor tanning may be innocent.

Not so fast speed-racer! A 2014 review study published in JAMA Dermatology went over the literature on indoor tanning effects of adults in Northern and Western Europe, USA, and Australia. Now here’s the shocker: More people get cancer in those regions because of tanning-caused skin cancer, than smoking-caused lung cancer!

We know smoking causes lung cancer. So we don’t smoke. Tanning is even deadlier.

Overall, we estimate 452,796 cases of basal and squamous cell carcinoma (NMSC) and 11,374 cases of melanoma each year attributable to indoor tanning. To put this in perspective, approximately 362,941 cases of lung cancer are attributable to smoking each year in these regions

Yes, more cancer cases are now being caused by tanning rather than smoking! So much for the “benefits of tanning.”

And if this was not convincing enough, a 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal that went over the literature examining non-melanoma skin cancer cases of people who have a habit of indoor tanning found:

Among people who reported ever using indoor tanning compared with those who never used indoor tanning, the summary relative risk for squamous cell carcinoma was 1.67 (95% confidence interval 1.29 to 2.17) and that for basal cell carcinoma was 1.29 (1.08 to 1.53).

This means that people who use indoor tanning are 1.67 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.29 times more likely for basal cell carcinoma. But wait, the Skin Cancer Foundation provides even worse numbers:

People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma (BCC). Even occasional sunbed use almost triples your chances of developing melanoma.

It’s no wonder that scientists have asked for indoor tanning to be banned. A 2015 study in New Solutions reports:

In this article, we argue for an immediate ban on the use of commercial indoor tanning by minors and, based on international precedents, the phasing out of all commercial tanning operations in the United States. We consider the use of indoor tanning devices in the United States, epidemiological data on indoor tanning devices and cancer, regulation of tanning devices, and scientific evidence for increased government intervention.

But if indoor tanning is so bad, why are tanning salons still in business?

“Quitting the Cancer Tube,” a 2014 study published in Translational Behavioral Medicine reported about indoor tanning users:

Interestingly, participants frequently discussed barriers to quitting that included both social pressures to resume or to maintain indoor tanning by promotions from the salons. These findings represent important barriers in women’s decisions to cancel or fail to renew their indoor tanning memberships.

Research on body image shows that both body image and depression are associated with tanning behaviors and attitudes, further highlighting that social pressures to resume or maintain indoor tanning can act as substantial barriers to quitting, particularly for those indoor tanners that battle with depression or body issues.

So it’s body image (oh, the healthy glow), social pressures (like me being told I’m too white in the summer), and salon marketing (if only it were not for promotions).

But there’s more: People rationalize their behavior (just like I rationalized mine by thinking that since I don’t get burned easily I’m fine).

A 2014 study published in Public Understanding of Science reports:

[…] revealed varied perceptions of risk, including acknowledging the risk of indoor tanning; denying or downplaying risk, often citing perceived health benefits associated with tanning; blaming outside forces for cancer, such as lotion or genetics; and fatalistic beliefs about cancer. These results highlight the nuanced relationship between perceived skin cancer risk and indoor tanning bed use.

Tanning salons are still in business because they don’t let you know of these risks. They may even talk about the benefits of tanning, presenting it as healthy, stating that it may increase your mood or libido. They say they use new technology and new lamps that don’t increase your risk, despite of the evidence that they are in fact deadly.

But they also emphasize Vitamin D. So let’s talk about it.

Benefits of tanning: Vitamin D production.

Vitamin D is a direct benefit of sun exposure. And Vitamin D is good for us. We all know Vitamin D for its role in absorbing calcium and having strong bones. It’s also been associated with anti-cancer properties and fertility.

The problem is that Vitamin D is rarely found in foods. That’s why milk and juice are often fortified with it. And that’s why Vitamin D supplements are so popular. And that’s also why the most common way to get it is through sun exposure, as UV rays trigger the body to produce Vitamin D.

So the question here is – should you spend time in the sun in order to produce Vitamin D, or do you increase your cancer risk by doing so?

Let’s start with what people who are concerned with their vitamin D do. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reports:

In this study, participants who agreed that they may be in danger of not obtaining enough Vitamin D if they regularly protect their skin displayed a tendency towards increased levels of sun exposure, e.g., believed that a sun-tanned person looked healthier and thought that more than 10 min of daily sun exposure were required for a healthy Vitamin D level. It is therefore possible that those who usually display less sun-protective behaviours now feel they can “legitimately” go unprotected.

10 minutes a day is 70 minutes a week. Do we need that for Vitamin D production? No. The truth is we need much less exposure time than what we think we need. According to a 2006 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia:

In January, across Australia, 2-14 minutes of sun three to four times per week at 12:00 is sufficient to ensure recommended vitamin D production in fair-skinned people with 15% of the body exposed. However, erythema can occur in as little as 8 minutes. By contrast, at 10:00 and 15:00, there is a greater difference between exposure time to produce erythema and that to produce recommended vitamin D levels, thereby reducing the risk of sunburn from overexposure. From October to March, around 10-15 minutes of sun exposure at around 10:00 or 15:00 three to four times per week should be enough for fair-skinned people across Australia to produce recommended vitamin D levels. Longer exposure times are needed from April to September, particularly in southern regions of Australia.

Let’s think about what the study suggests.

  • In the summer 2-14 minutes at 12 pm 3-4x a week are enough. So a total of say 10 minutes a week at 12 pm is fine as far as Vitamin D is concerned.
  • In spring or fall 10-15 min 3-4x a week at 10 am or 3 pm are also enough to produce Vitamin D. So a total of 30 min a week, when the sun is not at its peak, are fine for Vitamin D production.
  • In the winter, the study suggests we need longer exposure time. Makes sense if it’s rainy or cloudy most of the time!

Now the amount of time you should be spending out in the sun depends on your skin type, occupation, location of residence, cloud coverage, etc. So it’s complex. It’s not as if it’s an one-size fits all recipe.

But here’s the thing: if you follow these guidelines, and e.g., spend 10 minutes in the sun in the summer, that might be enough to get you tanned, but will this make you visibly tanned?

I doubt it.

It’s time we ditched tanning, for good.

So my point is – tanning is to be avoided at all costs. If you’re concerned about Vitamin D ask your doctor to prescribe a blood test for your Vitamin D levels. If they’re low, you may be prescribed a supplement. Even if you choose to go outside when the sun is hot in the summer, a total of 10 minutes a week will be enough.

For a sun exposure that’s longer than that, let’s abide by the American Academy of Dermatology recommendation:

Because exposure to UV light is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, the American Academy of Dermatology encourages everyone to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays by seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and using a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor of 30 or higher.

But what if you really like tanning?

After doing this research, I really believe that tanning as a fashion trend is hurting us. So I think we should all stay white and push for healthier fashion standards.

However, if you really like tanning, you could check out tanning cremes, sprays and other fake-tan methods. I haven’t studied them, so I don’t know if these products are any good, or if they are safe. I cannot make any specific recommendations or give any guidelines.

My personal decision is that this will be the very first summer where I’ll try to stay as white as possible!

Now leave a comment and let me know: Do you like getting tanned in the summer? What will you do this year?

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  1. Thanks for the info Maria. I knew some of them but not all. The most times I am not trying to be tanned in summer, but I am tanned easily, beacause my body’s colour is brunnette. The most times I use sun creams for protection, so I think that I am protected. It’s not in my mind to be bronze this year, I don’t like it too much, but I easily am tanned.

    1. Getting tanned is what your body does to protect itself from UV rays (a known carcinogen). I understand it can’t be completely avoided if you live in a sunny place. Best ways to get protected is through seeking shade, hats, sunglasses, protective clothing, and then sunscreen.

  2. I’ve always disliked being out in the sun, so this article is a relief to me! Lucky I now live in South East Asia, where people actually think white skin is really fashionable! To them, tanned skin means you’re poor and are forced to work outside all day.

  3. I’m done with sun, I’ve enjoyed it for 50 some years, as a child we had a pool and sunscreen wasn’t something we used or even knew existed, used tanning bed once in a while later on in life when the children were small, never more than 15 min 3x week. In the past year I’ve had 4 squamous cell cancers removed, one just 4 weeks ago and 2 new spots since then. They are not moles that look funny or change, it starts with a red, flakey spot and grows quickly. My dermotologist told me now that I’ve had spots, I will continue to have them and not to waste anytime getting attention to them. It took 57 years, but it will rear it’s ugly head if you don’t protect your skin sooner or later and I have the ugly scars to prove it.

  4. I love that tanning includes Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a direct benefit of sun exposure and can help your body by increasing your vitamin levels. I am usually low on my Vitamin D so I will need to start getting outside more in order to feel better. Thanks for the post! http://www.hdtanning.com/