Indoor and Sunless Tanning: Safe?

June 24, 2014

Is indoor tanning safer than outdoor tanning? Many people think that indoor tanning is not harmful because they are not out in the actual sun. However, research has grown increasingly conclusive that indoor tanning is just as dangerous, or possibly even more dangerous, than sunbathing. In fact, there is so much evidence that 30 states have limited use by adolescents, requiring parental permission or have even prohibited use by adolescents. In Connecticut, indoor tanning is prohibited for anyone under age 17. A salon operator who allows an underage adolescent to tan may be fined.  

The American Academy of Dermatology compiled a list of risks of indoor tanning. They include:

  • The United States Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency of Research on Cancer has declared UV radiation from the sun and artificial sources as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance.)
  • Studies have found a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma (skin cancer) in those who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning.
  • In a recent survey of adolescent tanning bed users, it was found that about 58 percent had burns due to frequent exposure to indoor tanning beds/lamps.
  • The FDA estimates that there are about 3,000 hospital emergency room cases a year due to indoor tanning bed and lamp exposure.
  • Studies have demonstrated that exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning damages the DNA in the skin cells. Excessive exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning can lead to premature skin aging, immune suppression and eye damage, including cataracts and ocular (eye) melanoma.

( keyword: indoor tanning.)

If you do use indoor tanning salons, there are some actions you can take that will help to reduce your risk.

  • Limit your exposure time. Use a timing device so that you don’t overdue your session. A sunburn might not show up until hours later.
  • Use goggles to protect your eyes.
  • Consider your medical history. If you have lupus, diabetes or are susceptible to cold sores, these conditions can become aggravated by UV light. Antihistamines, tranquilizers, and birth control pills are just some medications that may cause your skin to be more sensitive when exposed to ultraviolet light.

What about sunless tanning products (also called self-tanners)? Are they safe? Sunless tanning products have been around for a long time and are currently making a comeback as the evidence continues to grow about the association between UV radiation (from indoor and outdoor tanning) and the increase of skin cancer, particularly melanoma. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved the use of dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in 1977. DHA is the main component in self-tanners. DHA is a sugar and color additive that reacts with the skin to cause a bronze tan-like color. These products come in many forms (powders, gels, sprays and sticks.) How well they work and how good they look really depends on learning how to apply them. A review of the literature on the topic concludes that for the most part, self-tanners are safe to use when applied according to the directions and a safer way to obtain a tan than from the radiation that comes from the sun.  Conversely, the literature concludes that tanning pills and tanning accelerators have not been approved by the FDA and are not safe to use. Note: Sunless tanning products may or may not contain sunscreens. You need to check the label to see if it has a sunscreen with an identified SPF (sun protection factor.) If it does not, it will not provide protection from sun-burning rays.

Sometimes, people visit a traditional-type of tanning facility to have a spray tan applied. It is important  to note that the FDA has not approved DHA spraying in “tanning” booths as the safety has not been studied. The FDA cautions consumers to be sure to protect the entire eye and eye area, the lips and any other mucous membrane area. You also need to protect yourself against inhaling or ingesting the product.

A spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation encourages people to “love the skin they are in” but notes that if you must have that “golden glow”, sunless tanning products are a safer way to go. For more information on sunless tanning products (types, application and safety) visit,, or, and search “sunless tanning.” If you are a Quinnipiack Valley Health District resident (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) without internet access, you can receive free written materials by calling 203 248-4528 or request by email,