More than a quarter of a million cases of skin cancer can be attributed to tanning bed use, according to a new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That figure is for 2015, when the total skin cancer cases numbered about 2.4 million.
And another new study shows that some skin cancer survivors actually use tanning beds. Researchers at the University of Minnesota surveyed more than 700 survivors of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) and found that about 2 percent had used a tanning bed. What's more, 38 percent of melanoma survivors did not often or always wear sunscreen and 20 percent reported getting sunburned in the past year. Though these numbers aren’t high, consider that having been diagnosed with melanoma gives you a nine-fold increased risk of developing a second one.
The High Price of Tanning
Just in case the risk of skin cancer isn’t enough of a deterrent to keep people out of tanning salons, the University of North Carolina researchers aimed to put a dollar figure on this unsafe activity. They found that the medical cost of treating skin cancers related to tanning beds is about $343 million per year. And individuals affected by tanning-bed-related skin cancers will also face significant personal medical expenses.
According to the study, as a group, skin cancer sufferers will also lose more than $125 billion in terms of lost productivity during their lifetimes. “This shows that there is not only a personal and health burden for patients and their families but also a great loss to society itself,” says Jessica J. Krant, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in New York City, and a Consumer Reports’ medical advisor.
What’s So Bad About Tanning Beds?
In his study on tanning bed use, skin cancer, and associated costs, lead author Hugh Waters, Ph.D., associate professor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, noted that 30 million people use tanning devices every year. Ultraviolet radiation has been classified by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen—and getting your UV rays from a tanning bed may be even more toxic than getting them from the sun.
“Most tanning beds deliver fewer burning UVB rays, but they provide a much more concentrated dose of UVA radiation than the sun,” says Joel Cohen, M.D., a Denver-based dermatologist who serves on the teaching faculty for the University of Colorado and the University of California at Irvine. UVA rays don’t cause burning; the damage they do is less immediately obvious. These rays penetrate deeply into the skin and accelerate age-related skin damage, raise the risk of melanoma and other skin cancers, and suppress the immune system.
Protecting Your Skin
The best way to protect against skin cancer is to avoid excessive exposure to UV rays. That means staying away from tanning beds and shielding your skin from the sun when you are outdoors.
When you are showing some skin, sunscreen is a must. Consumer Reports' sunscreen tests have found that sunscreens don't always live up to the SPF claim on their labels, so we recommend choosing one of our top-rated brands, or if you can't find one, selecting a sunscreen with at least an SPF 40. According to our tests, that will give you the best chance of getting at least an SPF 30, which is the minimum level many dermatologists recommend.
Apply a teaspoon of sunscreen per body part or area—1 teaspoon for your face, head, and neck; 1 for each arm; 1 for each leg; 1 for your chest and abdomen; and 1 for your back and the back of your neck—15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Then reapply at least every 2 hours—more often if you’re swimming or sweating excessively.
Keeping track of changes in your skin is important, too. “My advice to anyone who has used tanning beds is, first, get to know your own skin and its spots,” says Krant. “Second, do not be afraid to go see your dermatologist even when you are tan; we still want to help if you are concerned about a spot.” And tanning bed users should get annual skin checks, as should people who have a history of sunburns; fair skin, light eyes, or red or blond hair; a family history of melanoma; or a personal history of basal cell or squamous cell cancer.
Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2017 Consumers Union of U.S.