Sunlight and Indoor Ultraviolet Tanning — the Lowdown on the Pros and Cons

People tan for a multitude of reasons. Some believe that a tan makes them look healthier and more attractive as a glowing tan can help hide skin imperfections, such as blemishes, scars, and stretch marks. For others, tanning is a way to relax or relieve stress and is part of their self-care routine. Many people also believe that tanning is healthy and good for overall well-being.

While it's true that moderate sun exposure is good for you, there are some risks associated with tanning. Tanning can lead to negative health outcomes and increase the risk of skin cancer.

Continue reading to learn about the pros and cons of sunlight and indoor tanning.

The benefits of sunlight exposure

Sunlight is a source of vitamin D, which is essential for health. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, a mineral critical for strong bones, teeth, and muscle function.

Without enough vitamin D, there's an increased risk of osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become fragile and easily broken. In addition, deficiencies in children can cause rickets, a condition that results in softening and weakening of the bones.

Research also highlights a link between vitamin D deficiency and cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and depression.

Sunlight exposure also has mental health benefits because the cycle of sunlight and darkness triggers your brain to release hormones. These include serotonin, which helps with cognitive function and memory, and melatonin, which helps you sleep at night.

Serotonin is a chemical messenger that boosts your mood and helps you feel calmer and more focused. Without enough sunlight, your serotonin levels can dip, which is associated with an increased risk of major depression with seasonal patterns.

One of the primary treatments for this form of depression is phototherapy, also known as light therapy. This involves using a lightbox that mimics natural sunlight, encouraging the brain to make serotonin and reduce excess melatonin.

However, although sunlight is critical for health, too much exposure can be harmful.

What to know about ultraviolet radiation

The sun produces different types of ultraviolet or UV rays.

  1. UVA rays have a longer wavelength but lower energy levels than other UV rays. As a result, they can penetrate the deep layers of skin and indirectly damage DNA. They're responsible for premature skin aging and are associated with some skin cancers. Around 95% of UV rays that reach the ground are UVA rays.
  2. UVB rays are shorter but have higher energy. They directly damage DNA and cause most skin cancers. However, types of rays contribute to burning, premature skin aging, and skin cancer. They also contribute to skin aging and sunburn.
  3. UVC rays have the shortest wavelength and the most energy. However, they don't typically cause health problems as the ozone layer filters them out. The ultraviolet radiation from sunlight is a known carcinogen and the leading cause of skin cancer. Doctors associate three types of skin cancer with sunlight exposure:
  • basal cell cancer
  • squamous cell cancer
  • malignant melanoma

Indoor tanning

Tanning is a big business. In the United States, the tanning salon industry is worth an incredible $3.9 billion, and it's growing steadily. In 2022, the market size is expected to increase by almost 5%.

Although often advertised as harmless, the UV light from tanning beds is equally harmful. No tanning beds or booths are safe, and the risk of skin cancer increases significantly after just one indoor tanning session. Because of these risks, the Food and Drug Administration has ruled that all indoor tanning equipment carries warning labels in the US.

Some salons claim that special UVB-only tanning beds don't have the burning effects of the sun or other negative health consequences, but this is inaccurate.

Even if the lights in tanning beds don't admit UVB rays, they provide around ten times the level of UVA rays. These rays may speed up the tanning process but also contribute to skin cancer risk.

Besides the implications of skin cancer, tanning also has other risks.

Accelerated skin aging

Exposure to UV rays causes the skin to age prematurely — a process known as photoaging. It causes areas of skin to become thin and less elastic, resulting in dry, wrinkled, leathery skin with blemishes and colored spots. These changes are irreversible.

The effects of photoaging are cumulative, which means they get worse over time as you're exposed to more ultraviolet light

Eye injuries

Like the skin, eyes are also susceptible to damage from the ultraviolet light of tanning beds. Short-term exposure can burn the cornea, a delicate but critical part of the eye's front surface. Doctors call this photokeratitis. It causes pain, eyelid swelling, light sensitivity, and vision problems. Thankfully, it's usually temporary.

However, UV light may contribute to the development of cataracts which causes vision loss that requires correction with surgery. It's also linked with macular degeneration and eye melanomas which have serious complications for your long-term eye health and vision.

Sunburn

Sunburn is a common problem associated with UV light exposure. Both natural sunlight and tanning beds can cause this skin reaction.

Sunburn is painful inflammation due to increased blood flow underneath the skin surface. As a result, the skin turns bright red, becomes warm or hot to the touch, and may blister. When these blisters pop, the skin peels. Sunburn is usually easy to see on paler skin tones and may be difficult to notice on darker skin.

A sunburn is a sign that your skin has been damaged by ultraviolet radiation, and it's a risk factor for all types of skin cancer.

The dangers of tanning

The best way to protect yourself from the dangers of UV radiation is to avoid exposure altogether. Although a golden tan may boost your self-confidence, it's not worth the risk to your health.

When you spend time in the sun, it's important to take precautions to protect your skin by using sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, wearing sunglasses, and seeking shade whenever possible.

If you enjoy having a year-round tan, the safest solution is to have a spray tan or use self-tanning cream. These products provide color without the dangerous effects of ultraviolet radiation.

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