Is There Really Any Difference Between Tanning Beds And Sunshine?

Tanning is undoubtedly one of the most exhausted teen-and-young-adult-focused topics in the history of … well… topics that are targeted at teenagers and young adults. Growing up, I was reminded of the damaging effects of UV rays both at home and in school environments. I didn’t have a prayer in the world of obtaining a good tan over the summer because I was being slathered with SPF 50 every 30 minutes to an hour of being outdoors. I was told horror stories of people who tried to tan in a tanning bed only to discover they had developed melanoma. I was shown images of leathery-skinned individuals who had once been just like me; now, they had condemned themselves to a hellish nightmare of premature wrinkles and sun spots. I didn’t want to look like them, did I?!

We all know the fruitlessness of trying to convince a teenager that their insecurities are unjustified. I didn’t care if I was going to look like a grandma at age 21 –  I wanted to be tan. I began my journey to being tan in small ways: I used sunless tanning lotion, laid out in my backyard, and used sunscreen—shout out to you, Mom—but switched to SPF 15. These efforts were enough at the time. I was never the tannest of my friends, but I wasn’t the whitest either.

Fast-forward two years. In a life-altering turn of events (or so I thought – I was a dramatic 19 year old at the time), I moved to an apartment whose clubhouse held two free-to-use tanning beds. My life would never be the same. Freed from the strict rules of wearing sunscreen even to check the mail (I used to be in drama club, guys) I started to use the beds on a daily basis. Don’t worry, I did it the “safe” way by following the rules of the bed: start out slowly, approximately five minutes at a time, and build up your skin’s tolerance until you can go for 20 minutes. The results weren’t immediate, but after a while, I was brown. And it was incredible. Not only did I look beach-ready and feel more confident, I also noticed less acne and a more even skin tone.

Then I stopped. Despite my newfound love for the tanning bed, I couldn’t shake the voice in my head that begged me to consider the dangers. My routine was always the same: I’d get excited at the prospect of being bronze, step in the bed, close my eyes, and begin panicking. I’m going to get skin cancer, I’d think. I’ll be on slideshows for high schoolers about the consequences of tanning. I’ll have leathery skin and premature wrinkles. I never went back.

What was the point of quitting? I really, genuinely felt better about myself when I tanned. I also felt guilty, as if my skin was my child and I was purposely putting her in harm’s way. Ultimately, I decided that, for myself, tanning wasn’t worth the risk.

I think it’s important to be well-informed of your decision—whether to tan or not to tan—and be aware of the risks and benefits. I heard both sides when I was a tanner – those around me who also enjoyed tanning gave their pearls of wisdom on the health benefits, while anti-tanning advocates (Mom) scolded me and sent me online articles which pointed to my imminent death should I continue in my ways. In my experience, I came across both sides, and I believe every argument is worth mentioning.

Common Argument No. 1: “Tanning leads to skin cancer.”

When you expose your skin to UV rays, it will lead to damage. In fact, the brown color you get is your skin’s natural defense against the sun. Skin’s melanin has been likened to tiny umbrellas: when the sun comes out, your skin’s umbrellas open up to protect itself. Prolonged exposure to UV rays can beat down your umbrellas, creating “holes” which allow harmful rays to reach your skin. No matter how you look at it, the truth is that the risk of skin cancer increases the more you lay in a tanning bed.

Common Argument No. 2: “Tanning beds are good for acne and stress.”

Some people (myself included) found that tanning beds gave the appearance of clearer skin. According to my research, no studies have yet proven a link between tanning and a decrease in pimples, although it’s been said that the darkening of skin will even out the redness and discoloration of acne, thus acting as a temporary cover-up.

In addition to helping with acne, many tanners argue that their routine decreases stress and helps with seasonal affective disorder (the depression that comes with cold weather). Sunlight and vitamin D are natural remedies to this condition, and tanning will increase your levels of serotonin, therefore making you happier. It’s true!

Common Argument No. 3: “Tanning too much will make you look 10 years older.”

Studies show that UV rays break down the elasticity of your skin, which causes wrinkles. They also damage skin cells, which can lead to possibly creating dark spots and a leathery appearance. Tanning beds have been called the “smoking of skin,” and “the single worst thing [for your skin] in terms of premature aging.”

Common Argument No. 4: “Tanning in the sun has benefits that tanning beds take away,” OR “Tanning beds aren’t as harmful as tanning in the sun.”

Some faithful tanners never touch a tanning bed, but will lie outside for hours to achieve the tan they want. Others will only tan in beds, and refuse to go outside because they’ve heard that tanning beds are safer.

Sorry, guys, but a quick Google search yielded reputable sources (Harvard Health, WebMD, Unity Point Health, etc.) that all say the same thing: both sun and tanning bed expose your skin to UV rays, which are damaging. Neither is more or less beneficial than the other.

Common Argument No. 5: “Sunless tanning is always streaky and unnatural.”

Never say never…and never say always. I’ve had streaky, orangey fake tans before, but not every time! Take steps to prevent this:

1. Exfoliate and shave before a spray tan or a sunless tanning lotion.

2. If your sunless tan lotion is too saturated or too dark, mix it with a regular lotion and apply as usual.  Perhaps, if you are wondering where to buy the best self-tanning lotion on the market, you can visit TanExpert for their detailed product review guide.

3. If you spray/lotion at home, use a latex glove to apply.

4. Be aware that perfume can react bizarrely with fake tans (it did with me) and can cause splotchiness.

In general, do your research and be aware of how to prevent streaks and splotches.

Common Argument No. 6: “Feeling good about myself is worth the risk of skin damage.”

This one can’t be disputed! It’s your choice, and once you’ve educated yourself, you can’t go wrong. (But please, read about LD writer Rachel’s experience with melanoma before you make your final decision).

I don’t want you to stop tanning. I also don’t want you to start. My goal is to lay out the facts (pun not intended) so you can make the decision for yourself. Yes, skin cancer, premature aging, and sun spots are factors to consider when you make the decision to expose yourself to UV rays on a regular basis, and yes, those are the reasons that I no longer use tanning beds. But the truth of the matter is that I feel better when I have a good tan. I don’t wear SPF 100, big hats, and a cover-up when I head to the beach. But I’ve found my limit—I don’t think the possibility of skin cancer and premature aging is worth going sunscreen-free. Get the facts, make an educated decision, and find your limit. As long as your opinion is backed by knowledge, it can only be disagreed with, not falsified.

Tan Collage

L-R: Tan as the result of a tanning bed; Tan as a result of the sun; No tan.

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