You might have the impression that tanning beds, booths, and lamps are safe. After all, they’re common fixtures in community fitness centers and even some corner laundromats. But you—and millions of others with the same opinion—would be mistaken.
World health leaders are issuing the strongest warning yet about indoor tanning and cancer risk, labeling the devices as “carcinogenic to humans” as smoking cigarettes and exposure to arsenic and asbestos.
The new research, published in The Lancet Oncology medical journal, found a higher-than-expected risk of potentially deadly skin cancer in people using sunlamps and tanning beds for cosmetic purposes. Not surprisingly, those who began the practice as teens or 20-somethings were most at danger.
“The risk of skin melanoma is increased by 75 percent when use of tanning devices starts before 30 years of age,” states the report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization agency that developed the most widely used system for classifying carcinogens. The group also found a link between tanning bed use and risk of melanoma of the eye.
Indoor tanning is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. The FDA is currently reviewing the language and positioning of warning labels on tanning equipment to convey a shorter and more forceful message.
But the American Cancer Society recommends people avoid tanning beds altogether.
“This new report confirms and extends the prior recommendation of the American Cancer Society that the use of tanning beds is dangerous to your health, and should be avoided,” says Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. “Young women in particular are the heaviest users of tanning beds, and, as noted in the report, are at the greatest risk of causing harm to themselves.”
The findings also put to rest the argument that tanning with UVA light is safe, Lichtenfeld says.
“Previously, the cancer-causing effects of ultraviolet light were thought to be primarily related to UVB, or ultraviolet B radiation. This new report now extends the cancer-causing effects of solar or sun-related radiation to UVA light, as well,” he says.
Conventional tanning beds produce an average 95 percent UVA and 5 percent UVB rays. Newer versions, however, emit higher levels of UVB to speed up the tanning process.