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Is Having a Tan Worth the Risk?

By Meena Singh, M.D

Is Having a Tan Worth the RiskIn the United States, there are more new cases of skin cancer than breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers combined. Over two million people are diagnosed annually. As a dermatologic surgeon, I am kept quite busy treating skin cancers with Mohs Micrographic Surgery, which is the standard of care for treating higher risk skin cancers.

The most disconcerting aspect of my job is treating young patients with very preventable skin cancers. The majority of these individuals are tanning bed users or have had significant sun exposure. The Greater Kansas City Area seems to have a tanning salon on every corner with special unlimited tanning packages even at workout facilities. Most of my patients that are tanners are fully aware of the harmful effects, so why the continued use and what are the facts about tanning?

Tanning Beds and Skin Cancer
Tanning bed lamps emit harmful ultraviolet light which damages the DNA in skin cells. Over time, tanning bed use leads to premature aging. The skin texture is uneven and discolored, has accelerated wrinkling and more sun spots. In addition to premature aging, tanning increases the risk of all types of skin cancer. Individuals who use tanning beds are 74% more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never used tanning beds.

The Tanning Epidemic
Although public awareness campaigns about tanning have been abundant and efforts have been made to decrease teenage use of tanning beds, tanning bed use has not significantly decreased. In fact, studies show that tanning bed users maintain a high level of awareness of the risks; however, this does not alter their behavior.

Even among families with melanoma, 35% of young adults have continued tanning bed use.

Research has shown that some individuals may have developed a dependency or addiction to ultraviolet light, similar to substance abuse. They also can experience withdrawal. Similar to those who smoke cigarettes, some tanning bed users feel a direct positive effect on mood, as well as relief.

Myths About Tanning:
1) There is no such thing as a “healthy tan.”
Embrace your natural glow! There is nothing more beautiful than an individual who embraces their natural beauty. Sun exposure directly damages the skin and no amount of tan is healthy.

2) “I look better with darker skin.”
That may be true! However, most would agree that prematurely aged skin does not look better on anyone. If a darker complexion is truly desired, there are numerous sunless tanning options. I will often tell my chronically sun damaged patients to compare the skin on their outer arm to the skin on their inner arm, which has had far less sun exposure. The less sun damaged skin often appears more supple and with more even texture and tone. Most would argue that sun protected skin is far more beautiful than aged, sun-damaged skin

3) Tanning Before Vacation is Protective
This is one of the most common reasons I hear for sporadic tanning bed use. As mentioned previously, tanning damages the DNA in skin cells. Therefore, it is not protective to tan before intense sun exposure. It is best to prevent intense sun exposure through a good SPF 30 or above sunscreen and/or sunprotective clothing and hats.

4) Tanning Makes Me Feel Better
While ultraviolet light may elevate mood and negate some effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), there are safe light emitting devices made solely for that purpose. These devices do not emit any harmful ultraviolet light and are a safe alternative to help enhance mood.

5) Tanning is Safe in Darker Skinned Individuals
This is the biggest myth when it comes to tanning. Although darker individuals may have a natural SPF of up to 13 and may not show signs of aging as readily, the skin can still be sun damaged. These individuals often are more likely to suffer from hyperpigmentation, which is worsened by sun exposure. In addition, although less common, when skin cancers do occur in individuals with darker skin, there is a higher likelihood of metastasis and death.

As a dermatologic surgeon, many of my patients ask me what they could have done to prevent the development of their skin cancers. We cannot change previous sun exposure, but we can do a better job of protecting our skin from future sun exposure.

While tanning may feel great and may enhance the appearance of the skin temporarily; similar to smoking, it is not worth the long term damaging effects. To learn more or to have your skin examined by a dermatologist, please call Kansas Medical Clinic Dermatology at 913-631-6330 or visit us online at

Meena Singh, MD
Dr. Meena Singh is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon. She attended Harvard Medical School, trained at the Mayo Clinic, and completed a surgical fellowship in New York City. From there, she became trained in MOHS Micrographic Surgery, as well as cosmetic dermatology procedures, such as Botox, lasers, and fillers. Completing a fellowship with the International Society for Hair Restoration Surgery under world-renowned surgeon Dr. Marc Avram, she trained in all areas of hair transplantation techniques… strip excision, manual/motorized/robotic follicular unit extraction, as well as transplanting into scarring alopecias.

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